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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Farewell Song music video

Mama Rainbow (彩虹伴我心, Fan Popo, 2012)

Though homosexuality is not illegal in contemporary China, it is perhaps still taboo. The notoriously strict censorship board is particularly averse to content which features LGBTQ+ themes, though many mainstream filmmakers have been able to get around the regulations with subversive allusions to same sex relationships. Times are perhaps changing. Rather than a gloomy exploration of the issues many young gay men and women face, Fan Popo’s Mama Rainbow (彩虹伴我心, Cǎihóng Bàn Wǒ Xīn) spins a tale of mass acceptance in following six mothers of gay children who, though not always so immediately supportive, have embraced their kids’ sexuality and in fact become activists themselves. 

Fan opens with a vox pop session asking members of the public about their views on homosexuality. The first few answers are predictably depressing with even young people looking embarrassed and either walking off or replying that they find the idea “disgusting”, “very bad”, “abnormal”, or “unacceptable”. Later, a few are found who think the question itself is unnecessary because they have no problem with gay people, but then asked how they’d feel if their child told them they were gay, most immediately say they wouldn’t like it though some concede there’s nothing they could do about it anyway so they’d have to just go with it while others say they’d simply “guide” them back towards the “right” direction so that they’d make “good choices”. 

One of the mothers, Mama Zhao, admits she originally thought the same way. Her son had agreed to marry a girl, but after reading book by another influential Mama decided that he couldn’t, committing himself to living an authentic life as an openly gay man. She tearfully admits that though she has accepted it herself, she is still ashamed to explain to other people, brushing off questions about why her son is still single with dull platitudes rather than simply telling them that he is gay. 

After attending talks by the woman who wrote the book that so affected her son, Mama Wu, Mama Zhao began to understand a little better, realising that the most important thing is that her son is happy which he certainly wouldn’t be if he forced himself to marry a woman to fulfil a social ideal. Education seems to be the key. Meiyi didn’t know much about homosexuality and thought it was something that was popular abroad that people did because it was trendy. When her daughter became close with a high school friend who ended up moving in with them, she began to see things differently and got to know a few other gay kids who she thought were all fantastic. She jokes that her daughter’s girlfriend “brainwashed” her by taking her to LGTBQ+ events, while the other girl’s own mother is also very supportive, actively empathising with her daughter’s choices right down to appreciating her taste in other women. 

Sister Mei and her son, meanwhile, are a cheerful and exuberant double act. She moved into the city to live with him in fear that he might need help locating other gay men (a move which seems like it should be counter productive but probably isn’t given the open nature of their relationship) and has now thrown herself into activism as a member of China’s PFLAG, becoming a surrogate Mama for all those who’ve been rejected by their families or just need to hear a supportive voice. Likewise, Mama Jasmine was as cool as could be when her daughter, after years of bringing female “classmates” over to dinner, finally came out and was supportive in a lowkey way until approached by Ah Qiang, the founder of PFLAG in China, to become a local organiser. 

Mama Wu, the woman who wrote the book that changed the mindset of Mama Zhao’s son and convinced her that his happiness was all that really mattered, speaks to another young man who reveals he hasn’t come out to his mother (assuming she doesn’t see the documentary) because she is in poor health and he worries that she just won’t be able to take the shock. Mama Xuan, who suspected her son was gay but hoped he’d grow out of it, tearfully takes to the stage to reveal that he has suffered violence and discrimination because of his sexuality, beaten up at school but too afraid to get help in case his parents find out why he was attacked, and subsequently blacklisted and expelled leaving him with a blemish on his record when the kids who attacked him had their views reinforced by the tacit approval of the school authorities. There is obviously work still to be done, but there are plenty of people willing to do it, because at the end of the day all they want is for their kids to be safe and happy and enjoying exactly the same rights as everyone else while surrounded by love and acceptance. 


Mama Rainbow is currently available to stream via Vimeo as part of Queer East’s online edition with all proceeds going to support independent cinemas.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Nobody (有鬼, Lin Chun-hua, 2020)

“Everyone has secrets that they don’t want others to know” according to the hero of Lin Chun-hua’s Nobody (有鬼, Yǒu Guǐ). He is indeed quite correct, everyone is in one sense or another living a lie, pretending to be something they’re not and often for quite complicated reasons which make them unhappy but convince them that their unhappiness is a kind of victory. Yet, there is no true connection without vulnerability and the sharing of a secret can be the most profound of intimacies, even if the connection itself is, perhaps wilfully, misunderstood by others. 

Credited only as “Weirdo” (Jian fu-sang), an old man lives in an illegally occupied attic space on top of an old-fashioned apartment building that he now finds difficult navigate due to his increasing mobility issues. For unclear reasons, he spends his days riding the bus to the hospital but making sure to spit somewhere along the journey, a habit which has made him the bane of bus drivers across the city. Thoroughly fed up, one particular driver decides to throw Weirdo off his bus by force despite his old age and relative frailty, causing him to sustain an injury to his head.

When he gets back to his apartment, Weirdo finds an unexpected intruder – teenager Zhenzhen (Wu Ya-ruo) who has snuck in in order to spy on the apartment opposite where her father meets his mistress. Zhenzhen is from a wealthy though conservative home where her mother, Yuping (Huang Jie-fe), is the perfect housewife but makes a point of prioritising her husband and son, leaving Zhenzhen feeling innately inferior simply for being female. Determined to be allowed to use the apartment to spy on her dad, Zhenzhen starts following Weirdo around, mostly trying to bully him into submission but Weirdo treats her the way he treats everyone else, simply ignoring her as if she didn’t exist. 

The original Chinese title means something more like “haunted” or more literally “there are ghosts” and in some senses it’s tempting to think of Weirdo as a ghost himself as he deliberately attempts to walk through the world as if he existed in a different plane. He is however haunted by lost love and a terrible sense of guilt that keeps him alone in his attic dressing the same way he dressed forty years previously though his hands are now too weak to be able to tie his tie. And then there are those secrets, things he feels obliged hide in the most literal of ways because others simply wouldn’t understand. 

What Zhenzhen discovers is that her family is full of secrets, but exposing them might cause more harm than good. She videos her father with another woman intending to expose him to her mother, but Weirdo tries to warn her that she’s the one that will probably end up hurt if she tries to use other people’s secrets against them. On the surface her family is a vision of upper-middleclass respectability, but her father’s having an affair, her mother is desperately unhappy, and her golden boy brother has secrets of his own. Challenged, Zhenzhen’s father resents her intrusion and points out that he provides for them as if his family life is just for show while he satisfies his desires outside of it, shutting down his wife’s admiration for her sister’s career as a pop idol manager by reminding her that she has a husband, home, and children while her sister has “nothing” because she is a single career woman and in his view an unsuccessful one. Yuping meanwhile is a taut, repressed, and unfulfilled middle-aged housewife actively lashing out at her daughter while sweetly supporting her husband and son, but tries to exorcise her own desires by teaching piano on the side and finding unexpected pleasure in flirtatious banter with one of her sister’s handsome idol stars. 

Nobody is exactly being honest, but it’s the way we live our lives because like it or not secrets are the lifeblood of civility but also an impermeable barrier to connection. Unable to bond with her prim and proper mother, Zhenzhen finds support from Weirdo who begins to open up despite knowing that Zhenzhen’s superficial niceness was only a ploy to get into the apartment, perhaps connecting with her sense of loneliness and betrayal as a young woman discovering that to one extent or another everyone lives a lie. Yet sharing the truth if only with one person can be its own kind of salvation, allowing youth and age to save each other from a world riddled with hypocrisy. 


Nobody made its World Premiere as part of this year’s Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English / Traditional Chinese subtitles)

Metamorphosis (Jose Enrique Tiglao, 2019)

“Everyone has a secret, but not all secrets are bad” according to Angel (Iana Bernardez), a sex worker and 24-year-old returnee to high school who befriends the lonely Adam (Gold Azeron) as he contends with an adolescence more challenging than most. Exploring the often underrepresented theme of intersexuality, Jose Enrique Tiglao’s Metamorphosis follows its conflicted hero as he struggles to come to an acceptance of who he is and wants to be while faced with the sometimes old fashioned, conservative attitudes of those around him. 

14-year-old Adam is already something of an outcast at school, often getting into fights with one particular boy who who keeps making a point of throwing homophobic slurs at him during class which go completely unchallenged either by the teacher or fellow pupils. Adam gives as good as he gets, but remains very much on the margins, until that is a beautiful young woman transfers into his class and ends up working with him on a class project because as usual no one else wanted to work with him. Somewhat strangely, Angel is 24 years old but in a regular high school class with a bunch of 14 year olds, which is a definite incongruity, but quickly becomes friends with Adam who offers to show her some of the local sites including a picturesque swimming hole. It’s during their outing that Adam discovers a change in his physique – he has begun to menstruate.

Adam and his family have always known that he was intersex though he has been raised as a boy which, for the moment, is what he most closely identifies as. The fact that he has started to menstruate forces him to engage on a deeper level with a sense of identity, struggling to accept the intrusion of this new and definitely female element of his physical body while also embracing his nascent sexuality. It’s Angel, making a somewhat age inappropriate attempt at seduction, who becomes Adam’s first ally, affirming that there isn’t anything wrong with him and suggesting that he reframe his perspective and think of himself as someone who is both rather than neither. 

That’s easier said than done, however, seeing as Adam comes from a conservative home with a father who is a pastor giving sermons about how God created male and female in his own image. Obviously concerned for their son’s health, Adam’s parents consult their family doctor who directs them to a specialist in Manila. Dr. Abraham (Ivan Padilla) is sympathetic, but also perhaps too definitive in immediately trying to offer reassurance with “we can fix this” as if Adam is in someway broken and in need of repair. That idea continues to present a problem when it is discovered that he has a functioning womb and vagina, leading the doctor and Adam’s father to conclude that he is more female than male and should therefore have his maleness removed. Nobody really tries to talk to Adam about this. Dr. Abraham tells him that he needs to be “ready” and also that he has to want this himself, but doesn’t make much of an effort to listen to him, telling him only that “the things that are not needed we will remove”. 

Adam’s father immediately starts referring to him as his daughter and makes arrangements for the surgery without explaining to Adam what exactly will be happening to him. He also suggests selling their mango farm and moving to another town where no one will know them as if Adam is some kind of dirty secret. Meanwhile Adam has begun to explore his sexuality, attracted both to the handsome Dr. Abraham, and the supportive Angel, uncertain if he should be feeling any contradiction between the two. People seem to be telling him that he needs to conform to being only one thing, negating both his own ability to choose and the right not to. Only the family doctor points out that many families in other countries have regretted forcing premature confirmation surgeries on children who later came to resent them, and that whatever happens should be up to Adam to decide, forcing a reconsideration on the part of Adam’s mother who realises her husband has been keeping valuable information from her regarding her son’s health. 

Ultimately, however, Metamorphosis offers a strong message of acceptance as Adam begins to embrace himself as he is rather than conform to a false binary gender identity.  “I only want one thing” he tells Dr. Abraham, “to be happy”. Adam gains the courage to be completely himself, emphasising that intersex identities are not broken or corrupted but beautiful in themselves, while making it plain that if others cannot learn to step outside of socially conservative norms of gender and sexuality then it is they who need to change.


Metamorphosis was screened as part of this year’s Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Queer East Film Festival Reveals Full Programme For Inaugural Edition

The Queer East Film Festival has announced the complete programme for its inaugural edition running at venues across London from 18th April to 2nd May. This year’s lineup features a diverse selection of films both classic and contemporary exploring LGBTQ+ life in East Asia opening with Hong Kong transgender drama Tracey, and closing with a 35mm screening of landmark Taiwanese teen movie Blue Gate Crossing.

Tracey

18th April, Lexi Cinema Plus Intro by How Wee Ng, University of Westminster

50-something Tai-hung is a married father of two grown-up children living a conventional life in contemporary Hong Kong, but a phone call informing him that a childhood friend has passed away forces him into a reconsideration of his life choices and a long delayed acceptance of a transgender identity in Li Jun’s moving drama. Review.

The Shepherds (UK Premiere)

19th April, Lexi Cinema Plus Intro by by Christopher Brown, University of Sussex

Documentary focussing on the lives of LGTBQ+ Christians in Taiwan.

Between the Seasons (UK Premiere)

21st April, Lexi Cinema

Hae-soo moves to a new city and opens a cafe where high schooler Ye-jin becomes a regular and eventually starts working. The two women draw closer but each have closely guarded secrets.

Funeral Parade of Roses

22nd April, Deptford Cinema

Toshio Matsumoto’s avant-garde classic inspired by Oedipus Rex and starring Peter as a bar hostess involved in a complicated love triangle with drag queen Leda and bar owner Gonda.

Memories of My Body (UK Premiere)

22nd April, Barbican plus intro by film critic Eric Sasono

A Lengger dancer looks back on his life as a tale of growing acceptance of sensuality lived against a turbulent political backdrop. Review.

Sisterhood (UK Premiere) + Director Q&A

24th April, Barbican. Followed by a ScreenTalk with director Tracy Choi

A woman returns to Macau after 15 years in Taiwan and begins reconsidering her relationship with her best friend, realising the emotions she felt for her may have been romantic in Tracy Choi’s subtly political melodrama.

Girlfriend Boyfriend – GF*BF

25th April, Lexi Cinema Plus Intro by by Christopher Brown, University of Sussex

Yang Ya-che’s modern classic in which the friendship between three young people fighting for democracy at the tail end of the Martial Law era is tested by their conflicting feelings for each other.

A Dog Barking at the Moon

26th April, Curzon Goldsmiths

A pregnant writer returns home to Beijing to visit her family with her French husband and is struck by the realities of her parents’ unhappy marriage in which her mother has retreated into a bizarre buddhist cult and her father has taken a male lover.

Malila: The Farewell Flower

26th April, Lexi Cinema

Reeling from tragic loss, a young man reunites with the love of his youth only to discover he has terminal lung cancer and has chosen to forgo all treatment in Anucha Boonyawatana’s melancholy mediation of love, life, and transience. Review.

Spider Lilies + Director Q&A

26th April, Genesis

Zero Chou’s lesbian classic in which a web-cam girl visits a tattooist’s studio and becomes obsessed with the spider lily tattoo on her arm. Hoping to get to know her better, she asks her to give her the same tattoo but the experience reawakens memories which threaten to force the two women apart.

Lilting

27th April, Prince Charles Cinema

A man tries to connect with the mother of his late partner who speaks only Cambodian-Chinese and remained unaware of her son’s sexuality in Hong Khaou’s deeply moving debut feature.

Turning 18

27th April, Regent Street Cinema

Documentary following the lives of two indigenous Taiwanese girls who meet on a vocational training programme and each experience difficult family circumstances.

The Wedding Banquet

28th April, Rio Cinema

Ang Lee’s 1993 Asian-American classic in which a gay Taiwanese New Yorker agrees to participate in a green card marriage to a Chinese artist to get his nagging parents off his back.

Queer Japan

29th April, Prince Charles Cinema

Graham Kolbeins’ documentary exploring LGBTQ+ life in contemporary Japan including contributions from mangaka Gengoroh Tagame (My Brother’s Husband), drag queen Vivienne Sato, and Aya Kamikawa who recounts her path to becoming the first transgender elected official in Japan.

Song Lang

30th April, Barbican

Beautifully tragic romance set in ’80s Saigon in which a conflicted street punk falls in love with a Cai Luong opera singer. Review.

The Teacher (UK Premiere)

1st May, Genesis Cinema Plus Intro by Christopher Brown, University of Sussex

A teacher’s personal and professional lives are destabilised by his support for equal marriage and relationship with a closeted, HIV+ older man.

Looking For? (UK Premiere) + Director Q&A

2nd May, Rio Cinema followed by a Q&A with directors Tung-Yen Chou and Popo Fan.

Documentary exploring questions of intimacy in contemporary gay life interviewing men from Taipei, Beijing, New York and London to find out what it is they’re looking for.

Blue Gate Crossing (35 mm)

2nd May, Genesis Cinema Plus Introduction by Christopher Brown, University of Sussex.

Taiwanese classic from Yee Chih-yen starring Gwei Lun-mei and Chen Bo-lin as high school students pursuing conflicting romantic destinies.

Queer East 2020 runs at venues across London from 18th April to 2nd May. Full details for all the films as well as ticketing links can be found on the official website, while you can also keep up with all the latest news by following Queer East on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Original trailer (English subtitles)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Short clip (English subtitles)

Nina Wu (灼人秘密, Midi Z, 2019)

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Original trailer (English subtitles)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Fagara (花椒之味, Heiward Mak, 2019)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Original trailer (English subtitles)