BFI London Film Festival Confirms Complete Programme for 2021

The BFI London Film Festival returns (mostly) to cinemas for 2021 with some titles also streaming online via BFI Player and/or playing select regional venues. This year’s East Asia selection includes two films by Ryusuke Hamaguchi, a world premiere of a new Lav Diaz, and a hotly anticipated Korea/Thailand horror co-production.

Drive My Car (ドライブ・マイ・カー, Ryusuke Hamaguchi, 2021)

Curzon Soho: Saturday 09 October 2021 17:05

BFI Southbank, NFT1: Thursday 14 October 2021 20:00

Also screening: Chapter Cardiff, Edinburgh Filmhouse, Glasgow Film Theatre, HOME Manchester, Showroom Cinema Sheffield, Tyneside Cinema Newcastle, Queen’s Film Theatre Belfast, and Watershed Bristol.

A stage actor and director (Hidetoshi Nishijima) attempting to come to terms with the death of his unfaithful wife casts her lover in his upcoming multi-lingual production of Uncle Vanya while developing a relationship with the reticent young woman driving his car in Hamaguchi’s adaptation of the Haruki Murakami short story.

Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (偶然と想像, Ryusuke Hamaguchi, 2021)

ODEON Luxe West End: Sunday 10 October 2021 17:20

BFI Southbank, NFT2: Monday 11 October 2021 17:50

Streaming: Sunday 10 October 2021 18:30 to Monday 11th October 18:30

A triptych of romantic tales from Ryusuke Hamaguchi in which a young woman realises her friend is unwittingly dating her ex, a student attempts to seduce a professor, and two women connect through an instance of mistaken identity.

Belle (竜とそばかすの姫, Mamoru Hosoda, 2021)

BFI Southbank, NFT1: Thursday 07 October 2021 17:50

BFI Southbank, NFT1: Sunday 10 October 2021 14:15

Curzon Mayfair, Screen 1: Sunday 17 October 2021 12:00

Mamoru Hosoda reinterprets Beauty and the Beast as a grieving young woman becomes an in-app idol star but is also threatened by the presence of a mysterious dragon.

Humidity Alert (습도 다소 높음, Ko Bong-soo, 2021)

ICA, Screen 1: Wednesday 06 October 2021 21:00

BFI Southbank, NFT3: Thursday 07 October 2021 12:30

Indie comedy from Ko Bong-soo set in a cinema at the height of summer 2020 where the premiere of a new film is set to take place while the cinema’s sole employee attempts to deal with spotty air con, COVID protocol, and industry divas.

Historya Ni Ha (Lav Diaz, 2021)

ICA, Screen 1: Tuesday 12 October 2021 18:30

In Lav Diaz’ contemplation of the transformative power of art, ventriloquist Hernando returns home to get married only for the engagement to fall apart. Heartbroken he makes the decision to communicate only through his puppet and accompanies a sex worker and a teenage boy on a treasure hunt to a remote island.

Hellbound (지옥, Yeon Sang-ho, 2021)

BFI Southbank, NFT2: Friday 15 October 2021 20:20

Prince Charles Cinema, Downstairs Screen: Sunday 17 October 2021 12:45

First three episodes of the TV drama coming to Netflix later this year in which people start receiving text messages telling them they’re going to hell and at a specific date and time. You’d think it was spam, but then the demon does indeed arrive at the appointed hour to drag the afflicted to the afterlife. While the police investigate, a shady cult milks the atmosphere of anxiety in Train to Busan director Yeon Sang-ho’s adaptation of his own webtoon.

The Medium (ร่างทรง, Banjong Pisanthanakun, 2021)

Prince Charles Cinema, Downstairs Screen: Wednesday 06 October 2021 20:55

ODEON Luxe West End: Friday 08 October 2021 20:40

Korea/Thailand co-production scripted and produced by The Wailing’s Na Hong-jin and directed by Banjong Pisanthanakun in which a documentary team meet shamaness Nim who acts as a conduit for goddess Ba Yan. Having accepted the role after her sister refused it, Nim is unsurprised when her niece begins exhibiting symptoms of shamanistic awakening, but soon fears something darker may be at hand.

White Building (ប៊ូឌីញ ស, Kavich Neang, 2021)

Kavich Neang makes his fiction debut with a film focussing on the same subject as his earlier documentary Last Night I Saw You Smiling in which the residents of Phnom Penh’s iconic White Building prepare for its demolition.

Money Has Four Legs ( ြေလေးချောင်း, Maung Sun, 2021)

ICA, Screen 1: Wednesday 06 October 2021 18:15

BFI Southbank, NFT2: Thursday 07 October 2021 15:40

Contending with money issues, an unreliable crew, and increasing government censorship, an aspiring director turns to crime in order to complete his film in Maung Sun’s timely black comedy.

Ripples of Life (永安镇故事集, Wei Shujun, 2021)

ICA, Screen 1: Monday 11 October 2021 20:45

BFI Southbank, NFT2: Tuesday 12 October 2021 12:20

A local waitress, leading lady returning to her hometown, and the director and screenwriter each from Beijing attempt to shoot a film in small-town rural China in Wei Shujun’s followup to Striding into the Wind.

Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash (Seperti Dendam, Rindu Harus Dibayar Tuntas, Edwin, 2021)

An impotent hitman living for nothing but violence falls for a female bodyguard after she effortlessly defeats him in Edwin’s genre hopping adventure romance.

Memoria (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2021)

Southbank Centre, Royal Festival Hall: Saturday 16 October 2021 17:30

Also screening: Chapter Cardiff, Edinburgh Filmhouse, Glasgow Film Theatre, HOME Manchester, Showroom Cinema Sheffield, Tyneside Cinema Newcastle, Queen’s Film Theatre Belfast, and Watershed Bristol.

Shooting outside Thailand for the first time, the latest from Apichatpong Weerasethakul stars Tilda Swinton as a woman visiting her sister in Colombia and becoming captivated by the local soundscape.

Wood and Water (Jonas Bak, 2021)

BFI Southbank, NFT3: Wednesday 13 October 2021 20:45

ICA, Screen 1: Thursday 14 October 2021 21:00

Travelogue in which a German woman travels to visit her son living in Hong Kong and wanders through the city in the midst of the pro-democracy protests.

The BFI London Film Festival takes place at various venues across the city from 6th – 17th October 2021, with some titles also streaming online or screening at various partner cinemas throughout the UK. Full details for all the films as well as screening times and ticketing information are available via the official website. Priority booking opens for Patrons on 10th September, for Champions on 13th September, and Members 14th September, with general ticket sales available from 20th September. You can also keep up to date with all the latest news via the festival’s Facebook page, Twitter account, Instagram, and YouTube channels.

BFI London Film Festival Confirms Complete Programme for 2020

The BFI London Film Festival returns for 2020 a little different than you remember it, but even within the concentrated programme there are a few East Asian gems to be found. This year’s edition will be a mix of online and physical events taking place at cinemas around the country and in your living room via BFI Player.

Days (日子)

Tsai Ming-liang’s latest stars Lee Kang-Sheng as a wealthy man who ventures into the city to seek treatment for neck pain and encounters a young masseur whose life is no less lonely if much less grand.

Screenings:

  • BFI Southbank, NFT 2: 8th October, 17.30
  • BFI Southbank, NFT 3: 8th October, 17.40
  • ICA: 9th October, 19.40

Online:

  • BFI Player: available 8th October, 18.30 – 11th October, 18.30

Striding Into the Wind (野马分鬃)

Semi-autobiographical road movie from Wei Shujun in which a young film student in his final year spends his time driving around China in a Jeep Cherokee.

Online:

  • BFI Player: available 16th October 18:30 – 19.00

Genus Pan (Lahi, Hayop)

The latest from Philippine filmmaker Lav Diaz runs a trim 156 minutes but once again engages with the complex history of the nation through the story of three miners traversing the unforgiving wilderness of a mythical island as they journey towards their home village.

Online:

  • BFI Player: available 11th October, 17.30 – 14th October, 17.30

A Day-Off for Kasumi Arimura (有村架純の撮休)

The first episode of the 2020 WOWWOW TV series directed by Hirokazu Koreeda starring actress Kasumi Arimura (Sekigahara, Narratage, Flying Colors) as a fictionalised version of herself enjoying a day off between filming. Only the first episode is available here but the eight-part series of self-contained stories also includes episodes directed by Rikiya Imaizumi (Their Distance, Little Nights, Little Love), Santa Yamagishi, Satoko Yokohama (Bare Essence of Life, The Actor), and Megumi Tsuno (Ten Years Japan “Data“). Koreeda also directed the third episode, with Rikiya Imaizumi also doubling up directing episodes two and six, and Santa Yamagishi four and eight. A followup series starring actor Ryoma Takeuchi and directed by Ryuichi Hiroki, Eiji Uchida, and Hana Matsumoto, airs in Japan in November.

Online:

  • BFI Player: available 10th October 13.00 – 13th October, 13.00

So how does it work? East Asian titles aside, a number of the bigger films will be screened in cinemas around the country including London’s BFI Southbank, ICA, Curzon Soho, Curzon Mayfair, Cine Lumiere, Barbican and Prince Charles Cinema, as well as HOME, in Manchester; Watershed, in Bristol; Glasgow Film Theatre; Broadway, in Nottingham; Showroom, in Sheffield; Queen’s Film Theatre, in Belfast; and Chapter, in Cardiff. All of the East Asian titles will however be available via BFI Player within a specific window during which you will need to press play. You will then have three hours to finish watching and you can only watch once. All titles are geolocked to the UK, and you can access BFI Player via PC or Mac, iOS or Android devices (unfortunately LFF titles are not available via the Samsung TV app and are not compatible with AirPlay or Chromecast). Prices for cinema tickets vary with venue (for BFI Southbank, tickets are priced at £14 with a £2 discount for members), while BFI Player virtual premieres are priced at £12, £10 for members. Tickets can be booked online or via telephone from 14th September for Patrons, 15th September for Champions, 16th September for Members, and 21st September for the general public.

The BFI London Film Festival runs 7th to 18th October, 2020. The complete programme can be found on the official website along with full details for all the films as well as ticketing links. You can also keep up to date with all the latest news via the festival’s Facebook page, Twitter account, Instagram, and YouTube channels.

To Live to Sing (活着唱着, Johnny Ma, 2019)

To Sing to Live poster 2“Boundless is the land for all to sing” according to the reverberating strains of a Sichuan Opera troupe practicing their art in the open air, ironically surrounded by the ruins of a decaying land. According to Chinese cinema at least, China is very much “under construction” though there is considerable ambivalence about the costs involved with such rapid “progress”. According to Johnny Ma’s second feature To Live to Sing (活着唱着, Hzhe Chàngzhe), Sichuan Opera maybe one of them though melancholy as it is and performed by real life opera stars, Ma’s film perhaps suggests that art’s transience is an unavoidable consequence of modernity.

We first meet our heroes, the Jinli Sichuan Opera Group, giving a small stage demonstration at a local cultural event straight after a team of high school girls in cheerleader uniforms inexpertly performing a traditional fan dance. Obviously running on a shoestring budget, the troupe gets around by means of a motorbike pickup truck which allows them to advertise on the road. Their main base, however, is a dilapidated theatre in a small corner of a rapidly depleting village.

The theatre, such as it is, is the only holdout surrounded by the rubble of the old town currently being “redeveloped” in keeping with the modern China. The wolf is quite literally at the door as the bulldozers’ claws tear through walls like an all powerful villain in an opera casting a spell of destruction over a disobedient kingdom. Leader of the company, Zhao Li has been ignoring the numerous “for demolition” tags all over the building hoping that something will come up, but now she’s had a letter to tell her that the end is nigh and she has no idea what to do.

Meanwhile, she’s also worrying about the future of the troupe seeing as they are all ageing and, according to her niece Dan Dan, Sichuan Opera isn’t “cool” anymore which why most of their audience members count themselves among the very elderly. Dan Dan, the troupe’s bright hope and leading lady, is conflicted in her role as a potential saviour. Mildly resentful at having been brought up in the trade, she both loves and rejects it, sorry to see it go but sure there is no future for traditional opera in the modern world. In her spare time she dances to K-pop hits alone in her room and, unbeknownst to Zhao Li until she’s guided by to the realisation by the manifestation of a stock Dwarf character, Dan Dan has taken a part-time job singing in a cabaret bar both to express herself and to earn a little extra money.

As the crisis deepens, the opera in Zhou Li’s head intensifies. Entering a dream stage, she finds herself once again in full costume valiantly battling villains only to emerge victorious but alone striking a heroic pose atop a pile of rubble. Worse, her fighting spirit threatens to harm those close to her including her beloved niece Dan Dan who longs to leave the world of opera behind but knows to do so would be to break her aunt’s heart. While her well-meaning husband goes behind her back to try and earn a few extra pennies by selling out the art of opera with a cheap “mask changing” act in a local hotpot restaurant, she makes use of a connection for a last ditch effort to get bureaucracy interested in her case by inviting a local dignitary to a show for which they’ll be pulling out all the stops, but also performing for free to make sure they get the punters in.

Zhao Li’s efforts prove fruitless. You can’t stop progress, after all. But, it’s not just the troupe who feel the sadness of something passing but the audiences too. With no performance scheduled, the old regulars dutifully show up to see the troupe off lamenting that there’s nothing left for them to do in this tiny, crumbling village. Sichuan Opera maybe be “uncool” to some, but it was the only splash of colour in an otherwise dull existence for many of the elderly residents and so it’s sad to say goodbye. At once signalling the tragedy of this moribund world and suggesting it’s time to let it go, Ma closes with a note of poignant, perhaps ironic positivity. “Boundless is the land for all to sing”, the Sichuan Opera troupe reminds us, rendering the ruined building that was its former home irrelevant as they offer their song to the open air for nothing more than the love of it.


To Live to Sing was screened as part of the 2019 BFI London Film Festival.

Clip (English subtitles)

So Long, My Son (地久天长, Wang Xiaoshuai, 2019)

So long my son poster 1“Time stopped moving for us a long time ago” the hero of Wang Xiaoshuai’s So Long, My Son (地久天长, Dì Jiǔ Tiān Cháng) sadly intones, a melancholy relic of another era lightyears away from the gleaming spires of the new China. Following two families over thirty years at the close of the 20th century, Wang’s film, perhaps unlike those of his contemporaries, is not so much quietly angry as filled with tremendous sadness and an unquiet grief for the things which were taken from those who found themselves betrayed by an unforgiving, rigidly oppressive regime.

In the early 1980s, two boys, brothers in all but blood, sit by a river. One is too timid to go in because he cannot swim, while the other, irritated, tries to coax his friend with the promise that they will stay by the shore and he will be there to protect him. Sometime later, we see that a boy has drowned, his parents running fast towards the hospital with the body in their arms but all to no avail. This single event, just one of many ordinary tragedies, is the fracturing point in lives of six previously close friends whose easy, familial relationship is instantly shattered by unspeakable guilt and irresolvable shame.

Liu Yaojun (Wang Jingchun) and his wife Wang Liyun (Yong Mei) have lost their only son, Xingxing, but as someone later points out he needn’t have been their only son if weren’t for the oppressive and needlessly draconian One Child Policy. Haiyan (Ai Liya), the mother of the other boy Haohao and wife of Yaojun’s best friend Yingming (Xu Cheng), rose quickly in the party hierarchy following the end of the Cultural Revolution, becoming ambitious and seduced by her own sense of power. On learning that Liyun had become pregnant with a second child, she marched her friend to the hospital and forced her to undergo an abortion during which Liyun almost died and was left infertile.

The couple lose both their children in the same room, passing underneath the single character for “quiet” that tries to silence even their grief in the face of such cruelty. Silence comes to define their relationships with their former friends who are by turns unsure how to speak to them in the wake of intense tragedy, and fully aware of their complicity. Yaojun and Liyun forgive all. Having lost their own son they only want the best for Haohao, hoping that he is young enough to simply forget the incident and go on with his life, but as the older Haohao later says the guilt became like a tree inside of him that grew as he grew. The silence, more than the guilt or the sorrow, destroys their friendship and makes reconciliation impossible.

Betrayed again, Yaojun and Liyun are two of many laid off from their previously guaranteed government factory jobs following the market reforms of the late ‘80s. To escape their grief they exile themselves to Fujian where they know no one and do not speak the dialect. We discover that they live with a rebellious teenager named Xingxing and wonder if somehow their son survived only to realise later that they have adopted an orphaned boy in a misguided attempt to replace the child they lost. Divided by their grief and frustrated hopes, Yaojun and Liyun grow apart. He drinks to escape his intense resentment towards his powerlessness in an oppressive society, while she yearns to repair their broken family but fears that Yaojun has already moved away from her.

Meanwhile, the modern China leaves them behind. Yingming starts a business and becomes a wealthy man, while Yaojun struggles on with a small repair shop. The couple return to their hometown and the flat they once lived in to find it exactly as it was when they left, improbably surviving while the rest of the factory complex has long been torn down. The statue of Chairman Mao is still there, but now he stands incongruously outside a giant shopping mall offering ironic comment on China’s rapid progress towards rampant capitalist consumerism. Haiyan, filled with shame and remorse, seeks reconciliation near the end of her life, but as others point out no one blames her for doing her job – she was a victim of the system too, if perhaps a willingly complicit one who allowed fear and need for approval to overrule her sense of humanity. Those were dark days in which one might be arrested and perhaps killed just for dancing. Following emotional rather than temporal logic, Wang’s non-linear tale bounces through 30 years of history as its stoic protagonists attempt to endure the cruelty of their times, but eventually lands on a note of hopeful restitution in which the “Everlasting Friendship” is finally restored and the family repaired, the silence broken and time in motion once again.


So Long, My Son was screened as part of the 2019 BFI London Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

First Love (初恋, Takashi Miike, 2019)

First love poster 1Taking a deep dive into Showa era nostalgia repurposed for the modern era, Takashi Miike returns to the world of jitsuroku excess with an ironic tale of honour and humanity. Quite literally all about the jingi, First Love (初恋. Hatsukoi) takes a pair of exiled loners betrayed by the older generation, and allows them to escape their sense of futility through simple human connection while the nihilistic gangster underworld slowly implodes all around them.

Sullen boxer Leo (Masataka Kubota) is so filled with ennui that nothing really excites him, not even success in the ring. An unexpected KO, however, sends him off to the doctor’s where he is told that he has a possibly inoperable brain tumour and very little time left to live. That is perhaps why he decides to punch a policeman in defence of a young woman running away and desperately pleading for help. Yuri (Sakurako Konishi), known as “Monica” to her captors, was sold to the yakuza by her father and has since become dependent on drugs. Little known to either Leo or Yuri, they are about to become embroiled in a long brewing turf war between the local yakuza and the Chinese Triads engineered by jaded underling Kase (Shota Sometani) who has enlisted rogue policeman Ohtomo (Nao Omori) to help in a plan to steal his gang’s drug supply and have Ohtomo sell it on in the same way he does with “confiscated” narcotics while blaming the whole thing on the Chinese.

Abandoned at birth, Leo is a man who doesn’t know his history and so doesn’t know himself. He tells a reporter that there is no particular reason that he boxes save that he doesn’t know how to do anything else, yet the fighter’s all that remains and “boxer” has become his entire identity. A passing fortune teller advises him that he loses because he only fights for himself and if he truly wants to win he needs to learn to fight for someone else, but Leo is used to being alone and believes he has no need of other people. Knowing he’s going to die means, paradoxically, that he has infinite potential because he has nothing left to lose.

Leo punching out the policeman reawakens in Yuri a memory of her “first love”, a high school classmate who tried to defend her against her abusive father whose ghost still haunts her in drug-fuelled hallucinations. The ultimate proof of the yakuza’s ironic lack of “jingi” or “honour and humanity” when it comes to the treatment of women, Yuri was betrayed first by her father and then by the petty street thug who got her hooked on drugs as a means of control and exploited her body for financial gain.

Ironically enough, it’s a Chinese Triad who proves the ultimate heir to “jingi” having come to Japan because of her love for classic Toei gangster hero Ken Takakura only to discover that kind of nobility is something you only see in the movies. While the yakuza lament that they’re at a disadvantage fighting the Chinese because they don’t need to worry about “honour” as dictated by their code, they are quick enough to scream vengeance when Kase convinces them that it was the Triads who offed their street fixer (Takahiro Miura) to get back at recently released gangster Gondo (Seiyo Uchino) who is the reason that the Triad boss is nicknamed One-Armed-Wang. Gondo and Wang are already on a collision course as representatives of their respective ideologies with Gondo perhaps the last true yakuza standing, faithful to his code to the end.

Sensing his strong sense of jingi, the romantic Triad allows Leo to escape with Yuri as if recognising that neither of them belong in this nihilistic world of pointless and internecine violence. Despite proclaiming that he had no need of other people, it’s Leo’s humanity that eventually saves him as he realises that he was always going to die and rediscovers his true strength through fighting to protect someone else. Yuri, meanwhile, finds the will to live again in making peace with the past and laying old ghosts to rest thanks to Leo’s altruistic decision to protect her. Echoing Fukasaku’s classic crime cycle in its severed heads and funky ‘70s jazz score remixing the iconic theme tune, Miike ups the ante with a series of outlandishly idiosyncratic gags as Kase’s nefarious scheme snowballs into a darkly humorous crescendo of ridiculous brutality, but ultimately rejects the futility of a world without jingi in allowing his pure hearted heroes the possibility of escape, saved rather than consumed by their sense of honour and humanity.


First Love was screened as part of the 2019 BFI London Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Heart (하트, Jeong Ga-young, 2019)

Heart Still 2Director Jeong Ga-young has begun to make a name for herself as the female Hong Sang-soo since her indie breakout debut Bitch on the Beach. Unlike Hong, Jeong also stars, taking her meta concepts to a whole new level in her leading role as a typically Hongian feckless filmmaker on the prowl. Where Bitch on the Beach, a monochrome two-hander, found her toying with an ex, Hit the Night saw her experiment with role reversal as a skeevy director “interviewing” her crush about inappropriate topics under the guise of research for a screenplay. In Heart (하트), her latest awkward self-confession, she neatly brings the two together as a conflicted movie director turns to a married man she once had a short affair with to get advice about her crush on another man who is also married.

Ga-young, a 30-ish film director, suddenly shows up at the studio of artist Seong-bum after six months looking for a shoulder to cry on. Some time previously, the pair had a short affair in which Seong-bum slept with Ga-young on the very day that his wife gave birth to their son. Now Ga-young has come looking for someone to talk to about her ambiguous relationship with another married man who has just become a father. Seong-bum is not particularly happy to be consulted on this topic as if he were some sort of expert, but finds himself going along with Ga-young’s whims until they eventually end up having sex on the studio couch.

Ga-young (like the protagonists of Jeong’s previous films) essentially regards men as pathetic and faithless, willing to betray their wives and girlfriends with another woman with nary a second thought. Manipulating them is, partly, a kind of revenge though one that often seems to backfire. Later, talking to an actor about her script which forms the basis of the conversational scenes with Seong-bum, Ga-young outlines her desire to destigmatise affairs with married men. Taking an obvious soap opera scenario but lending it realism and relatability she hopes to open a dialogue for people to talk seriously and without judgement about something that really happens every day. The dialogue is, however, immediately hijacked by the actor who judges her on realising the screenplay is partly (well, largely?) autobiographical in that Ga-young herself has really had relationships with married men. After all, married men Ga-young says, like the Cannes film festival, are apparently something you do so you can tell people that you tried it and it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.

Ga-young seems to have fallen into the same trap as the director in Hit the Night in assuming the hot young actor would be an idiot but quickly finding herself out of her depth when he begins turning the tables and asking her awkward questions about her screenplay. Talking to Seong-bum about her relationship with the other married man, she tells him that her attraction is largely based on her perception of him as the sexiest man alive along with his persistent vanity in constantly asking Ga-young to tell him that she likes him. Seong-bum thinks the other guy is a jerk for cheating on his wife while they have a newborn baby, conveniently forgetting that he did exactly the same thing himself, later offering only the excuse that his circumstances were “different” when Ga-young reminds him.

In an odd relationship analogy, Ga-young outlines a scenario in which couples are cosmically paired off on separate islands but professes admiration for those who actively defy their romantic destiny to chase love of their own choosing. Probed, however, she proclaims that she herself is waiting on her island for her lover to arrive. Lamenting to Seong-bum that her heart hurts because of all the leftover feelings she doesn’t know what to do with, Ga-young remains passive, allowing herself to be dominated by the judgemental actor while casting herself in the opposite role wilfully manipulating Seong-bum in her screenplay. Yet even within the constructed narrative of the conversations, she undercuts herself by inserting a Korean drama-esque sequence of herself and her married crush accompanied by a swooning K-pop power ballad. The actor sniffily tells her that he doesn’t get the point of making a film like this, that he simply doesn’t see the meaning. That he doesn’t get it might in itself be the point. Ga-young lets her heart lead her where it may and despite herself there is a kind of truth in that, even if its meaning is hard to discern.


Heart was screened as part of the 2019 BFI London Film Festival.

Clip (Englis subtitles)

Wet Season (热带雨, Anthony Chen, 2019)

West season posterA middle-aged woman and teenage boy meet at opposite ends of loneliness only for their frustrated connection to end in a destructive act of misplaced desires in Anthony Chen’s acutely observed melodrama, Wet Season (热带雨, Rèdài Yù). Reuniting with Ilo Ilo’s Yeo Yann Yann and Koh Jia Ler, Chen spins a differing tale of fracturing families as his heroine, a perpetual outsider, finds escape in simulacrum but fails to realise the implications of her attempt to nurture a lonely child.

A Mandarin teacher at a local high school, Ling (Yeo Yann Yann) has been undergoing intensive IVF treatment with her emotionally distant husband, Andrew (Christopher Lee Meng Soon), for the last eight years. Repeated disappointments have placed a strain on their relationship and it seems to Ling that Andrew has already given up, rarely coming with her to the clinic and drawing away from her physically and emotionally. Though they have a housekeeper to help during the day, Ling is also the primary carer for Andrew’s bedridden father (Yang Shi Bin) who, despite his kindness and inability to communicate directly, displays only contempt for his son’s continuing moral cowardice.

Unappreciated at home, Ling fares little better in her professional life. It’s clear that no-one takes Chinese language terribly seriously as an academic subject and she remains isolated at school as a Malaysian Mandarin speaker in a largely Anglophone environment with a rather old-fashioned colonial perspective that English is the only useful language. She tries her best to teach her disinterested students, but finds them uncooperative save one young boy, Wei Lun (Koh Jia Ler), who develops a sudden interest in Chinese after imprinting on Ling when she offers to drive him home after running into him at the hospital and discovering no one was coming to fetch him.

Wei Lun’s parents are of the absentee kind, but apparently very keen that he do well in Chinese so he can eventually do business in China. The only student to turn up for remedial classes, Wei Lun starts getting a lot of individual attention, something that arouses the suspicion of a nosy neighbour in his apartment building who also happens to be a chemistry teacher at the school. The pair grow closer with Ling introducing him to her father-in-law who also takes to the boy, allowing him to fill a painful absence at the family table as the son and grandson they never had while he gains the loving attention of a devoted family ready to support him and celebrate his successes.

Yet brought together by shared loneliness, there’s an essential conflict in their differing desires as Ling remains, perhaps wilfully, oblivious to Wei Lun’s obvious crush which runs to something awkwardly maternal and deeper than your average teenage fixation on a sympathetic teacher. As the storms intensify, they seem set on a destructive collision course, approaching the same problem from opposite sides of an unbridgeable divide.

Battling her internalised sense of failure as a wife and mother in her inability to bear a child along with her professional irrelevance as a teacher of “unnecessary” Chinese, Ling finds validation in Wei Lun’s obvious need, allowing herself to feel “wanted” but perhaps misinterpreting that desire in Wei Lun’s adolescent confusion in which the familial and the romantic become hopelessly blurred. Momentary lapse aside, Ling remains essentially maternal, hoping to comfort Wei Lun as he endures his first heartbreak. “My heart hurts”, he tells her, “That’s how it is” she explains to him sadly, “you’ll get used it”.

Stormy weather and reports of civil unrest in Malaysia as an embittered populace rises up against state corruption echo Ling’s sense of anxious hopelessness as she attempts to find accommodation with life’s disappointments, her imploding marriage, and the impossibility of escape. For her at least the storm clouds eventually lift and the rainy season comes to an end giving way to a brighter future and a new start born of the total destruction of the old. Chen’s tale of misplaced desires and ill-defined relationships may be an overfamiliar one, but handled with care and universal empathy. Refusing judgment, Chen’s camera observes its fragile protagonists as they seek escape from their pain and loneliness through the illusion of connection while the storm inside intensifies. Having endured the rains, Ling rediscovers the light, claiming her right to happiness and leaving the wet season far behind.


Wet Season was screened as part of the 2019 BFI London Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom (Pawo Choyning Dorji, 2019)

Lunana posterBhutan is, apparently, the happiest place on Earth so why would anyone want to leave it? The Gross National Happiness Project does not seem to have touched the hearts of the young in Pawo Choyning Dorji’s first directorial feature Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom. Highly Westernised and dreaming of consumerist success, these youngsters have their sights set on overseas, unimpressed with the kind of “happiness” packaged to them at home.

20-something Ugyen (Sherab Dorji) is a civil servant serving out his government contract as a teacher while hoping to emigrate to Australia and pursue his dreams of becoming a musician. Ugyen’s conservative grandma may think that a government job is its own kind of success, unable to understand why anyone would want to give it up when so many are striving for just that, but to Ugyen it’s a kind a kind of prison that wants to trap him in a life of dull conventionality. That might be why he’s currently rated among the worst teachers on the payroll with a little more than a year still to run on his term of service. To buck up his ideas, or maybe just as a kind of punishment, the local authority decides that Ugyen should be the one sent up the mountain to Lunana, one of the most remote villages in the country, where they are desperately in need of a new teacher. Ugyen doesn’t really have any choice but to go along with it, hoping that his visa will have come through by the time he gets back which will, after all, only be a few months because the school closes for winter during which the village is cut off by heavy snow.

Lunana is indeed a remote place. You can’t get there by train, or by bus, or even it seems by donkey. From the closet station it’s an eight day walk through rough mountain terrain and city boy Ugyen is not exactly one for hiking. He buys a fancy pair of walking boots, only for his guides to turn up in wellies and forge ahead with steadfast determination, while he ignores their roadside rituals and rolls his eyes at all of this untouched natural beauty. The villagers turn up to great him at a waypoint two hours out from the main settlement so they can all walk back together, and though he remains polite Ugyen cannot hide his resentment on arrival, flatly telling them that the village is even worse than he thought it would be and he wants to turn round and go straight back home.

With only 56 residents and a handful of children, the village runs along ancient rhythms but modernity penetrates even here and the children are enormously excited about the new teacher and how much they are going to learn now that the school will be opening again. Ugyen asks them what they want to be when they grow up and receives some surprising answers – one girl says she wants to be of service to the king, another wants to be a singer, and the lone boy professes that he wants to be a teacher because “teachers touch the future”. Not exactly a deep thinker and somewhat dismissive of his occupation, Ugyen is impressed and chastened by the boy’s answer. Disappointed by the “school’s” primitivism – essentially just an empty stone room, he enlists some of the adult villagers to craft a makeshift blackboard, figuring out how he can replicate chalk with charcoal, and getting a city friend to send some modern equipment such as colourful posters and a new ball for the kids’ improvised basketball court.

Unable to charge his iPod with the temperamental solar power, Ugyen begins to realise that he is in fact living in the world of song where the yak farmers value the ability to sing above all else. One of the village’s pretty young women, Saldon (Kelden Lhamo Gurung), is particularly famed for her rendition of a sad folksong about a yak farmer who has to say goodbye his beloved yak when it is decided it has to be sacrificed for the village. While learning how to live the traditional life – starting fires with dried yak dung and singing for the joy of it, Ugyen begins to see the advantages of simplicity. Life in the village is hard, but the people are kind and happy with what they have. Ugyen may not quite be able to let go of his Australian dream, even as he scrawls folksong lyrics over his prized leaflet, but takes something of Lunana with him in his new respect for his roots and the soulful contemplation of the mountains.


Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom was screened as part of the 2019 BFI London Film Festival.

Festival trailer (English subtitles)

37 Seconds (Hikari, 2019)

37 Seconds poster“We’re just like everybody else” the heroine of Hikari’s debut feature 37 Seconds replies in bemusement when a prospective date confesses he never thought he’d feel comfortable with “someone like” her. Quietly meditating on societal prejudice against disability, 37 Seconds takes its heroine on a journey of self discovery as a series of disappointments pushes her towards embracing a new side of herself as an individual in defiance of those who might feel they know what is best, or perhaps just most “appropriate”, for “someone like” her without bothering to consider how she might feel.

Softly spoken, 23-year-old Yuma (Mei Kayama) has cerebral palsy and uses a motorised wheelchair to get around. Although she has a degree of independence with a job as an assistant to a manga artist, her friend Sayaka now a giant YouTube star, to which she travels alone by train, Yuma otherwise has little life outside the home she shares with her increasingly overprotective mother Kyoko (Misuzu Kanno). Yuma’s dreams of becoming a manga artist in her own right are dealt a blow when she’s told that her style is too close to Sayaka’s, only Sayaka’s style is Yuma’s because Yuma is doing all the work while her friend steals the credit and gleefully gives interviews claiming she is 100% indie and has no assistants. Beginning to realise she’s being exploited, Yuma gets an idea when she spots some erotic manga abandoned in the park and starts ringing up magazines for work. One bites and likes her stuff but worries that her sex scenes lack authenticity because of her lack of experience. 

Though previously unbothered, Yuma decides to embrace her sexuality in the name of art but finds a series of obstacles in her way, not least among them her mother who continues to infantilise her claiming that she is too vulnerable to be allowed out alone because there are too many strange people in the world. Kyoko won’t let Yuma wear pretty dresses, or makeup, or go out in the same way other girls her age might, refusing to accept that her little girl has grown up and has the same desires as any other young woman including that to be independent. Unable to escape her mother’s control, Yuma begins lying to her to meet prospective dates but finds them all unsuitable until finally trying to hire a sex worker only for that to go horribly wrong too. It does however introduce her to the people who will change her life – empathetic sex worker Mai (Makiko Watanabe), and her assistant Toshiya (Shunsuke Daito), whom she meets in a love hotel corridor while waiting for a broken lift.

When Yuma first meets Mai, she’s in the company of another man with cerebral palsy using a wheelchair, Kuma – played by Yoshihiko Kumashiro, a real life activist raising awareness about sexuality in the disabled community whose life inspired Junpei Matsumoto’s 2017 feature Perfect Revolution. Seeing the warm and genuine relationship between Mai and Kuma gives Yuma a new hope that a different kind of life is possible, especially as Mai offers to take her under her wing. Having an older woman to confide in about things she could never discuss with her mother allows Yuma to explore her newfound desires with confidence knowing that there are people looking out for her and always ready to offer advice.

Not everyone, however, is quite so enlightened and Yuma’s problems are largely to do with the persistent social stigma she faces from the world around her as well as a resultant sense of internalised inferiority. Sayaka, her “friend”, views her as a kind of cash cow, taking advantage of her skills but denying her existence while Sayaka’s agent swings in the other direction by telling her she should go public because she’d get a lot of press once people know she employs a disabled woman as an assistant. The first place Yuma gets any kind of respect is the office of the erotic manga magazine where the boss treats her like any other prospective hire and offers her constructive advice. From the awful dates and bad faith friends to her mother’s well-meaning yet problematic attempts to trap her in childhood, Yuma struggles to find a sense of self-worth when everyone is telling her that her life is limited and she must conform to their stereotypical ideas of how “someone like” her should live.

Thanks to Mai and Toshiya, Yuma eventually gains the confidence to assert herself, but also the ability to accept that her mother’s actions, however misguided, came from a place of love tempered by regret and sadness she was unable to understand without engaging with her mother’s history. A beautifully empathetic exploration of a young woman’s gradual blossoming under the light of genuine connection, 37 Seconds is a unsubtle rebuke of a fiercely conformist society unwilling to accommodate difference but also a quiet hymn to defiance as its heroine learns to shake off the labels placed on her and claim her independence no matter what anyone else might have to say about it.


37 Seconds was screened as part of the 2019 BFI London Film Festival.

Festival trailer (English subtitles)

The House of Us (우리집, Yoon Ga-eun, 2019)

The world of us poster 2“People should eat with their families” a little girl points out dutifully declining an invitation to dinner, only to return home and dine alone. Hana (Kim Na-yeon), the heroine of Yoon Ga-eun’s The House of Us (우리집, Ulijib), is still young enough to think she can bend the world to her will but is about to discover that some things can’t, or perhaps shouldn’t, be changed only accepted. Meditating on the meaning of family in a changing society, Yoon’s World of Us followup finds its earnest heroine trying to escape familial disappointment through forging a home of her own but eventually realising home is not a house.

11-year-old Hana has just won the best classmate prize, but no one at home seems to be very excited for her, nor (perhaps strangely) does she seem to have many friends. In fact, despite her caring nature, she’s feeling intensely insecure because her family life is in disarray. Mum and dad are both busy and rarely home, but when they are they’re having blazing rows about how dissatisfying they each are as spouses while even going so far as to have retroactive arguments about the decision to have children while their kids are still in earshot. Hana can see her mum’s busy and she wants to help so she offers to do some of the cooking as part of her summer holiday “recipe book” project, but is flatly refused. Fearing that her parents are on the brink of divorce and longing to return to happier days, she pesters them about going on a trip, believing that would be enough to repair her fracturing family.

Wistfully staring at happy families wherever she goes, Hana ends up running into two little girls, nine-year-old Yoo-mi (Kim Shi-a) and her sister seven-year-old Yoo-jin (Joo Ye-rim), who are living more or less on their own while their parents are working away (an uncle checks in on them every now and then). Lonely as she is, Hana starts hanging out with the equally lonely sisters but takes on an oddly maternal rather than sisterly role, delighting in cooking for them the way her mother rarely does for her and would not allow her to do for their family. Generating an easy bond, the girls decide to build “the house of us” out of discarded cardboard boxes, declaring they’ll build it as high as they can.

Yet Hana, still a child herself, struggles with what it means to assume a parental role. She does to Yoo-mi and Yoo-jin the exact things that she most resented about her own parents – withholding information and making decisions which affect everyone without consulting anyone. Having moved around a lot, Yoo-mi and Yoo-jin are most anxious that their landlady says they’ll be moving but their parents haven’t told them anything. Hana vows to help them save their house while protecting her own home, but in reality she can do neither. The girls resort to a series of childish tricks to prevent prospective tenants from choosing to rent Yoo-mi and Yoo-jin’s apartment in the belief that that they could stay if no one wanted to move in, approaching the problem with innocent logic that makes perfect sense to a child but is little more than silliness to an adult.

Meanwhile, Hana struggles with twin discoveries of parental betrayal in finding her mother’s application for a transfer to Germany, and accidentally answering a call from a woman on her father’s phone that perhaps embarrasses her as she realises despite her young age that he has done something potentially destructive to their family. The less control she has in her family home, the more time she spends with Yoo-mi and Yoo-jin making a new one and trying to do it better. The sisters begin to look up to her as a little more than a big sister figure, allowing her to lead and expecting that she will know what to do even when she fails them.

Through her own failures, Hana begins to realise that her parents aren’t perfect and adults don’t always know what to do either. The girls accept that they belong to different families and can’t stay together, but discover that the “house” wasn’t what was important and that they’ll always be connected even if they’re far apart. No longer so insecure, Hana steps into herself and understands that her parents’ marriage is something they’ll sort out for themselves and if the family is scattered it’ll still be her family. A warm and empathetic, if melancholy, exploration of coming to terms with life’s disappointments, The House of Us finds serenity in the act of letting go as its heroine finds the strength to look forward rather than back towards a happy independence supported but not constrained by imperfect family.


The House of Us was screened as part of the 2019 BFI London Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)