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

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

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

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

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

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


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

International trailer (English subtitles)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

#LookAtMe (Ken Kwek, 2022)

The unequal authoritarianism of contemporary Singapore conspires against an aspiring YouTuber in Ken Kwek’s surreal drama #LookatMe. Opening with a title card explaining that 2015 prominent activists have jailed for breaking arbitrary laws relating to obscenity and illegal assembly, the film throws its progressive hero into a kafkaesque quest for justice after he’s arrested for publishing a video mocking a homophobic religious figure simultaneously asking why it’s alright for a pastor to spout hate speech but illegal to challenge him and pitting the hero’s desire for fame against that for genuine social change. 

Sean (Yao) does indeed want fame, running an unsuccessful YouTube channel while alternating between mocking more successful stars and emulating them by playing cruel pranks on his understanding mother in the hope of going viral. His life changes when his girlfriend Mia (Shu Yi Ching), whose parents are religious, invites him, and his gay twin brother Ricky (also Yao), to attend an evening service at her church in an attempt to curry favour. The church turns out to be of the evangelical variety, opening with a Christian rock performance before showman pastor Josiah (Adrian Pang) arrives on stage and embarks on a homophobic rant insisting that he has no problem with gay people but is dead against them overturning Singapore’s colonial era law criminalising homosexual sex. Ricky is obviously upset, unsure why Mia whom he assumed to be progressive would have invited him to such an event, and leaves abruptly upsetting Mia’s father in the process. 

Sean is so outraged by the whole thing that after noticing that Josiah gets a lot more hits than he does with his hate speech, he makes a video mocking his messaging and satirically accusing him of bestiality which eventually goes viral but also gets him arrested after the church’s many followers ring the local police en masse. Sean can’t understand why he’s in trouble with the law for publicly insulting a religious leader while Pastor Josiah is seemingly free to spread dangerous and hateful ideas with no fear of challenge or dissent. Banned from social media, he’s picked up again for making an apology video and is then eventually sent to prison for 18 months while facing a defamation trial in his absence. 

Even his new cellmates can’t quite believe he’s been put away for something as ridiculous as a YouTube video yet his plight exemplifies the authoritarianism of the contemporary society in which there is no guarantee of free speech nor safe path to protesting injustice. Ricky is later arrested too for “illegal assembly” when he and three friends hold up a banner protesting the case because four people outside together is apparently prohibited by law. As he points out, how are you supposed to hold up a giant banner with only three people? Sean tried to stand up for Ricky, and Ricky does the same for Sean deciding to come completely out of the closet as an LGBTQ+ activist with the support of their mother Nancy (Pam Oei) as they fight for justice but then faces random violence on the streets from homophobic vigilantes while she is later fired from the primary school where she works after refusing to sign an apology or renounce her political views. 

The film takes aim at social hypocrisy as Sean is sexually abused by the prison warden while inside, and the pastor seeks to preserve his business interests calmly telling Nancy that he bears her no grudge but won’t drop his defamation suit because he has to protect the Church from similar forms of attack. He says this while lounging around on his yacht while servants bring him drinks, clearly incredibly wealthy from the proceeds of his religious life which whichever way you look at it is not a good look. In any case the film’s ironic conclusion which vindicates Sean and the place of video in social protest cannot but seem a little flippant in its implications which reduce the pastor to the position of hypocritical villain while Ricky’s conversion to Christianity feels like too much of a concession even if making clear that it is not religiosity that is being demonised only those like Josiah who would seek to profit from hate and repression. Nevertheless, Kwek presents an alternately heartwarming and harrowing vision of a close family torn apart by outdated and irrational laws and in the end left only with violence as a potential motivator for change. 


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

NYAFF trailer (English subtitles)

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Backlight (逆光, Ren Sudo, 2021)

©2021 『逆光』 FILM
©2021 『逆光』 FILM

An aloof young man brings a friend back from college but struggles to convey to him his true feelings in the Onomichi of the 1970s in actor Ren Sudo’s directorial debut, Backlight (逆光, Gyakko). This may partly be because he himself is uncomfortable in his childhood home while the object of his affection seemingly takes to it though as someone else later hints perhaps in the end he is only toying with him as a pleasant summer diversion that will eventually draw to a close. 

Sudo opens the film with a series of black and white slides of Onomichi in the 70s accompanied by a cheerful voiceover in opposition to the film’s subsequent gloominess describing the area for tourists and in particular its cable car. Finally the slides give way to clumsy shots of Yoshioka (Haya Nakazaki), university friend of Akira (Ren Sudo), and a copy of Yukio Mishima’s College of Unchasteness. Akira has invited Yoshioka to stay with him at his family home in Onomichi for a week over the summer, but it’s fairly odd behaviour to invite someone somewhere and then spend the whole time telling them how awful it is and that you can’t wait to leave. 

Evidently the son of wealthy parents who for whatever reason are not around, Akira is a fairly unsympathetic figure who seems to have been harbouring resentment towards Onomichi ever since his family moved to the area from Tokyo when he as a child. He views it as dull and backward and seems to have only contempt for those who live there such as childhood friend Fumie (Eriko Tomiyama) whom he blanks in the street as like the cable cars of the opening he passes her in the company of Yoshioka. Realising he is back, she arrives at his home to return some books he’d lent her but even on encountering her there Akira treats Fumie disdainfully and is quite embarrassingly rude in front of his new friend explaining that he lent the books so that a simple country girl like her wouldn’t fall behind the times while contemptuously assuming that she won’t actually have read them. 

These misogynistic attitudes seem prevalent in the local community which is in any case unusually obsessed with Mishima. Another local intellectual describes College of Unchasteness, which Akira has not actually read, as “silly prose for women” a phrase Akira later echoes, while making a cynical comment as to its content suggesting that a woman’s ultimate pleasure lies in being murdered by a man she may have been manipulating. Unable to voice their desires directly there may be a degree of manipulation going on, Akira silently courting Yoshioka who may indeed be toying with him in the way that he may have been toying with Fumie who has since come to know of his sexuality. In any case he seems to be uncertain of Yoshioka’s receptiveness, crassly suggesting Fumie invite another girl, Miko (Akira Kikoshi), who seems strange and otherworldly, with the rationale that it would be a problem if she were too pretty and by implication insulting Fumie too in the process. Miko meanwhile is evidently upset by the lewd conversation while later prompted to leave the party after a political debate breaks out about nuclear arms. Perhaps it’s not surprising for a party that seems to be populated by Mishima devotees but even if their support for re-armament is a facet of their anti-Americanism it is curiously at odds with the times again upsetting Miko whose mother is a survivor of the atomic bomb having lost all her family. 

Even so the closing scenes turn back to Mishima and doomed romance in a description of love as a political act in which love that does not transgress, is not considered shameful or taboo, is not really love at all. Akira may have found the courage to overcome his fear of rejection, but it seems has not been altogether successful in love. Playing with the light, the brightness of the beaches, murkiness of the room occupied by Yoshioka, and that of the fire ominously reflected on Akira’s face, Sudo adds a note of wistful nostalgia expressed in the song sung by Miko that perhaps presents this “heartbreaking” summer with a sentimentality it does not quite appear to have even as Akira seems to come to an accommodation with himself, Fumie, and Onomichi amid the confusing summer heat. 


Backlight streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Images: ©2021 『逆光』 FILM

Let Me Hear It Barefoot (裸足で鳴らしてみせろ, Riho Kudo, 2021)

“I can touch it if I reach out” one of the heroes of Riho Kudo’s second feature Let Me Hear It Barefoot (裸足で鳴らしてみせろ, Hadashi de Narashite Misero) claims as he narrates a fantasy trip to Iguazu Falls, but his tragedy is that he can not reach out and neither can his friend or really anyone in this suffocating enclave of moribund small-town Japan. As in her debut Orphan’s Blues, Kudo finds her heroes trapped with a space of artificial nostalgia and yearning for escape while in constant dialogue with Wong Kar-Wai’s melancholy romance Happy Together as the two young men process their frustrated desires not only for each other but for an end to the loneliness that defines each of their lives. 

Naomi (Shion Sasaki) is lonely in part because he feels trapped. Having dropped out of university he’s working in his father’s (Masahiro Komoto) recycling depot while his best friend and high school sweetheart Sakuko is about to move to Canada. He first catches sight of the enigmatic Maki (Tamari Suwa) at the local pool after trying to learn to swim to effect change in his life and later bonds with him along with a mysterious old woman, Midori (Jun Fubuki), who has lost her sight and claims to have travelled the world in her youth. What the boys later discover is that Midori had not been entirely honest in that her travels had been vicarious, related to her by a third party long since departed whom she did not want to forget. Following a health scare she tries to give Maki her savings telling him to travel the world in her stead but he soon discovers that she was sadly mistaken about amount she’d put away. Lacking the heart to tell her, Maki decides to use an old tape recorder to fake trips to famous places ironically mirroring her final confession that her friend had never travelled either but made all the stories up for her benefit. 

The tape recorder conceit of course directly recalls Happy Together as does the final destination of the Iguazu Falls while hinting at the unattainable freedom each of the young men yearns for as mediated by their desire to travel the world. “We can go anytime” Maki tries to convince Naomi in his mounting desperation though each of them on some level knows they will never leave nor escape their sense of loneliness. Maki describes himself as feeling as if he is trapped within a magnetic field, surrounded by people but unable to touch them. A man permanently at odds with his environment, Naomi feels the same but their feelings for each other are complex and confusing. In a repeated motif one reaches out to touch the other but suddenly pulls back, their repressed desire expressed only through increasingly intense play fighting until one is finally unable to go on with the subterfuge and unsuccessfully attempts to address their unresolved romantic tension. 

Much of their courtship occurs in Naomi’s converted garage bedsit, a space filled with unwanted relics of the past from countless VHS and discarded books to TVs and radios. The garage is his literal safe space, Naomi explaining to Maki that he feels the urge to collect things out of a sense of security that they are safe here even if they disappear from the outside world. “Memories will stay” Maki reminds him, but that’s not good enough for Naomi who ironically can only trust the things that he can touch. Preoccupied with a sense of loss he is unable to move forward, cannot take hold of himself or his desires wishing to preserve the past at all costs while Maki has learnt to live in the moment able to let go but adrift in the present. 

“We may not even be alive tomorrow” Naomi wails in desperation, feeling as if he’s running out of time while boxed in by his equally lonely, disappointed father as a vision of his future self worn down by small-town life and a persistent sense of futility. The two men are forever divided, literal glass standing between them in the closing scenes in which they can no longer touch even if they wished it. Small-town life is it seems the place dreams go to die as symbolised in Sakuko’s eventual defeated return, Naomi left only with resignation to the life he had rejected in an acceptance of the failure of his unfulfilled desires. “I don’t want to forget” he claims echoing Midori’s explanation for her mysterious tattoo while left only with the ironic words of Maki’s cassette tape in their melancholy echo of the romantic impossibilities of Happy Together, “we need to start over”. 


Let Me Hear It Barefoot streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Images: (c)PFF Partners

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Original trailer (English subtitles)

What She Likes (彼女が好きなものは, Shogo Kusano, 2021)

“Distance keeps us safe” according to the hero of Shogo Kusano’s LGBTQ+ teen drama What She Likes (彼女が好きなものは, Kanojo no Sukina Mono wa) ironically commenting on the nature of “social distancing” in the age of corona along with his own sense of alienation. Though in comparison to other recent similarly themed features Kusano’s film may in some senses seem behind the times in its BL filter, it has its heart firmly in the right place as the hero and several of his friends attempt to find a place for themselves within the contemporary society which for various reasons they fear will not accept them. 

In high schooler Jun’s (Fuju Kamio) case, his sense of alienation is born of his internalised homophobia in which all he wants is to have a conventional heteronormative life within the confines of the traditional family with a wife, children, and grandchildren. Part of this may stem from a secondary source of marginalisation in that he comes from a single parent family which is itself still frowned upon by some as evidenced by the mild discomfort experienced by his new friend Sae (Anna Yamada) when he explains to her why he always eats cafeteria food rather than bringing a homemade bento. Sae’s source of internalised shame, meanwhile, is that she is a fujoshi or obsessive fan of boys love manga which revolve around romances between men but are aimed at an audience of young straight women rather than the LGBTQ+ community. 

Based on the novel by Naoto Asahara, what the film attempts to do is examine the gap between the BL fantasy and the reality of being gay in contemporary Japan. Sae is ashamed of her love of BL and ironically paranoid that Jun will expose her secret after running into him at a bookshop, explaining that she was shunned in middle school when her friends found out she enjoyed reading gay love stories which they viewed as “creepy”. Meanwhile, she has a complicated view of homosexuality off the page which is not always completely supportive. Both she and Jun continue to use a world that many would consider to be a homophobic slur to describe men who love men, Jun at times using the word against himself while simultaneously denying the identity. The first conclusion that he comes to is that Sae does not really like him but only the romanticised gay ideals from the fantasy world of BL which as is later pointed out are often set among a largely gay milieu or even in a world where everyone is gay. 

Sae refers to this space as the BL Planet, but Jun’s desire to go there is also a reflection of his internalised homophobia in that on the BL Planet he’d obviously be just like everyone else. He’s fond of repeating a sentence they learned in science class about a simplified world with zero friction which he later claims to reject unwilling to erase complication for superficial harmony but this is exactly what he’s doing in attempting to erase a part of himself in order to better conform to a heteronormative society. He beats himself up for not being able to have “normal” sex after half-heartedly agreeing to date Sae while engaging in physical intimacy with a much older man who is married with a child. Jun’s lover Makoto (Tsubasa Imai) later explains that his marriage is one of convenience born of the same kind of internalised homophobia experienced by Jun though he obviously loves his wife and child if in a different way while the inappropriateness of his relationship with a teenage boy is never raised by anyone.

Jun is taken to task by a brash classmate, Ono (Ryota Miura), for his irresponsibility in dating Sae knowing that he has no romantic interest in her hinting that perhaps not that much has changed in the last 10 or 15 years both men convincing themselves that heteronormative relationships are the only valid markers of success. Then again when Jun is accidentally outed his classmates are given a crash course in LGBTQ+ relations most of them expressing support and the conviction that society needs to become more accepting of diversity though it has to be said they were less than understanding before, particularly the boys who found Jun’s presence a challenge to their masculinity. 

Teenage boys they all are, but even infinitely sympathetic straight best friend Ryohei (Oshiro Maeda) engages in crude, misogynistic banter with their classmates forcing Jun to play along pretending to be a connoisseur of heterosexual pornography. Probably some or even most of the other boys are also lying in an act of performative masculinity but the pretence only adds to Jun’s internalised sense of otherness and belief that he is in some way broken continually asking not only why he was born like this but why anyone is. After receiving an alarming message from an online mentor, he is pushed towards a dark place in becoming convinced that the world has no place for him only to belatedly come to an acceptance of his identity as mediated through Sae’s concurrent epiphanies realising that without friction there is no progress and discovering liberation in authenticity. Despite a few mixed messages and a bizarre subplot about a hairdresser who is not himself gay but nevertheless obsessed with gay people to the extent that he thinks he can spot them in public places through codified signs and the look in their eyes, Kusano’s teen coming-of-age drama has its heart in the right place in its gentle plea for a more inclusive, joyfully diverse society. 


What She Likes screens at Genesis Cinema on 28th May as part of this year’s Queer East.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

East Palace, West Palace (东宫西宫, Zhang Yuan, 1996)

“The convict loves her executioner, the thief loves her jailer. We love you. We have no other choice.” the hero of Zhang Yuan’s beguiling, transgressive drama East Palace, West Palace (东宫西宫, dōng gōng xī gōng), whispers to his no longer sleeping guard. “I love you”, he later adds, “why don’t you love me?” turning the tables on an implacable authority and demonstrating that he too wields power. Considered the first Mainland film to deal directly with homosexuality, Zhang’s theatrical chamber piece is as much about the co-dependency of the oppressor and the oppressed as it is about gay life in post-Tiananmen Beijing while suggesting that in a sense submission too can be a weapon. 

Gay travel writer A-Lan (Si Han) is first challenged by uniformed policeman Shi Xiaohua (Hu Jun) in a public toilet. Staring at him intently, Shi stops A-Lan for no real reason, asking for his ID followed by a series of other personal questions with seemingly no law enforcement import before double checking if the bike outside is his and that he has a proper permit for it. These acts of hostility begin a cat and mouse game between the pair, Shi almost desperate to come up with a reason to arrest him which later he finds on raiding the park, a popular spot for cruising, after dark. But as he leads him away, A-Lan suddenly plants a kiss on the policeman’s cheek and taking advantage of his momentary shock makes his escape. 

During in the arrest, meanwhile, Shi and the other policemen had a made a point of insulting each of the men who have not actually done anything illegal under the Chinese law of the time, beating them or forcing them to beat themselves, ordering them to squat on the ground, and even threatening to call one frequent offender’s place of work. As Shi often will, the police refer to the men as “despicable” and the “dregs of soceity”, yet A-Lan is in a sense empowered by his submission in allowing himself to be arrested before subsequently escaping having planted the seeds of his seduction. He flirts with danger in mailing Shi a book with the inscription “To my love, A-Lan” and thereafter deliberately gets himself arrested, later running away from Shi only in the desire to be chased by him.  

Hugely reminiscent of Kiss of the Spider Woman, the majority of the film takes place within the confines of the park’s police hut occupied only by A-Lan and Shi, a prisoner and a guard. Yet as in the Peking opera story A-Lan repeatedly quotes, elegantly recreated in Zhang’s theatrical shifts into fantasy, the two roles are to an extent interchangeable. Shi thinks he’s the guard, that he exercises authority over A-Lan, but A-Lan is also manipulating him, trapping Shi within this space and drawing him towards a recognition of his own latent desires, the same desires that were aroused when he hassled him in the public toilet. While Shi, the guard though no longer in uniform, is constrained by authority, A-Lan, the prisoner, is free in embracing his essential self and weaponising the essence of his power in the choice to submit as reflected in his masochistic desires. “It is not despicable. It is love” he insists on being challenged by Shi after detailing his BDSM encounter with a wealthy man, echoing his previous reminders that “What I write might be trash. But I am not”, refusing to allow Shi to degrade him even while taking pleasure in submitting to authority. 

Even so, he declares himself conflicted in having married a woman presumably for appearances’ sake something of which many in his community do not approve and leaves him both guilty in his treatment of his wife and disappointed in himself. When Shi barks “explain yourself” he details his life as a gay man from his first sexual experience in which he pretended to be a woman to being assaulted by thugs after sleeping with a factory boss adding only that “this kind of experience makes life with living”. “We all march to a different tune” he tries to explain to Shi, individual but also identical. He mentions another regular to the park he describes as a transvestite but in the language of today might better be thought of as transgender, A-Lan explaining that she enjoys wearing women’s clothes but is different from the men in the park. She does not make love to them, and they do not bother with her, A-Lan insisting that she too has her own beat to which to march as does Shi even in his increasing confusion. 

Shi wields his handcuffs, the relationship between the pair mediated through them just as that between the guard and beautiful prisoner in his story is mediated through chains, but eventually places the cuffs on each of their hands locking them together in an intense embrace. The guard cannot exist without the prisoner, nor the prisoner without the guard. “He will no longer escape from his love for her” A-Lan ends his story, the guard releasing his beautiful charge while she decides to return to him each of them knowing they are trapped in melancholy waltz of love and hate. Highly theatrical and scored with a persistent note of dread, Zhang’s beguiling drama hints at the sadomasochistic interplay between authoritarian power and a subjugated populace while allowing its hero to mount his resistance only through deriving pleasure from submission. 


East Palace, West Palace screens at the BFI on 27th May as part of this year’s Queer East. It is also available to stream in many territories via GagaOOLala.

A Distant Place (정말 먼 곳, Park Kun-young, 2020)

A gay couple searching for a far off land of love and acceptance find their rural dream crumbling in Park Kun-young’s melancholy autumn drama, A Distant Place (정말 먼 곳, Jeongmal Meon Gos). As it turns out, you can’t outrun yourself nor an internalised sense of shame and if you can’t find a way to root yourself firmly in the ground you risk losing those close to you lashing out in anger towards a needlessly judgemental society. 

Jin-woo (Kang Gil-woo) is indeed a man on the run, chased out of Seoul by his internalised homophobia and seeking a quieter life in a small mountain town with fewer people around to feel rejected by. Having studied fine art, he now works as a hired hand on a sheep farm where he’s bringing up his daughter Seol (Kim Si-ha) while waiting for his partner, Hyun-min (Hong Kyung), a poet, to join him. Once he arrives, everything goes well for them living a discreet life in the mountains where no one it seems has noticed that they are a couple though as we later realise the farmer, Mr Choi (Ki Joo-bong), and his daughter Moon-kyung (Ki Do-young) have figured it out and little care choosing to say nothing. The real drama begins, however, with another arrival in that of Jin-woo’s estranged twin-sister Eun-young (Lee Sang-hee) who as we discover is actually Seol’s birth mother having abandoned her to Jin-woo only to come back to try and reclaim her having married and opened a cafe. 

Jin-woo’s conflict lies partly in wondering if he’s being selfish in his desire not to return Seol to Eun-young while genuinely believing that a life of isolation in the mountains is better for her longterm future. His ideal is undercut when Seol upsets another child at a formal occasion by snatching his toy away from him, hinting at the costs of her lack of socialisation spending almost all of her time on the farm helping with the sheep or talking with Mr. Choi’s elderly mother (Choi Geum-Soon) who is suffering with advanced dementia. In a certain sense, each of them is trapped by their environment, the elderly grandma seeking escape in her small moments of lucidity. Moon-Kyung is beginning to fear her dreams of escaping small-town life will not come to pass while she has perhaps also missed the boat for becoming a wife or a mother snapped at by her grandmother in a moment of frustration. Her realisation that her crush on Jin-woo is misplaced on finding him in bed with Hyun-min is then a double moment of disillusionment leaving her only the vicarious position of becoming a surrogate mother to Seol who continues to refer to Jin-woo as “mama” rather than father. 

This framing in itself foregrounds the primacy of the traditional family in highlighting both the absence of a female caregiver and then by implication a father while simultaneously feminising Jin-woo as a man who is raising a child as we later find out with another man, if secretly. When the pair are accidentally outed, it not only strains the relationship between the two men but implodes Jin-woo’s dream of discreet country living. Though the townspeople had previously been friendly towards them, they find themselves shunned in town, figures of gossip and ridicule. Having been essentially run out of Seoul by his internalised homophobia, Jin-woo begins to fear he has nowhere left to run. Hyun-min tries to convince him that he’s asking for too much, that they should live quietly and keep the peace, but his shame gets the better of him lashing out that he’s never felt comfortable with Hyun-min around always self-conscious and paranoid about what others may be thinking of him. 

As Hyun-min puts it in a poem, only the hope of a “distant place” keeps them going even as the road ahead crumbles at a rapid pace with the abyss creeping ever closer. While there are small rays of hope in the quiet acceptance of Mr Choi who has come to think of Seol as his own granddaughter, Jin-woo begins to fear that his distant place is beyond his reach and that no matter how far he runs he will never reach a point of comfort or happiness where he can live openly with the man he loves and the little girl he has raised since birth as his daughter. Figures of loneliness and disappointment haunt the otherwise idyllic landscape shattering the nurturing image of a simple life in the country but even as the film opened with an ominous death it ends in new life promising perhaps a new if uncertain dawn. 


A Distant Place screens at Genesis Cinema on 26th May as part of this year’s Queer East.

International trailer (English subtitles)