Terrorizers (青春弒戀, Ho Wi Ding, 2021)

A collection of youngsters is drawn into a dangerous web of simmering violence in Ho Wi Ding’s Taipei-set drama, Terrorizers (青春弒戀, qīngchūn shì liàn). The film may share its name with an Edward Yang classic, but it is very clearly society that is the terroriser in this instance from toxic masculinity and social conservatism to youthful isolation, video games, and pornography. The film seems to ask if it’s ever really possible to move on from the past and discovers that it may not be though some may be prepared to help carry your baggage as they travel towards the future so long as they know what’s in it. 

The youngsters are brought together by the ominous presence of Ming Liang (Austin Lin Bo-Hong), an isolated young man who barely speaks and spends all his time playing video games. It’s him we see dressed in full ninja garb attacking a young woman, Yu Fang (Moon Lee), with a katana at the train station only for her boyfriend Xiao Zhang (J.C. Lin Cheng-Hsi) to heroically throw himself in front of her to fight Ming Liang off. 

Later a dejected middle-aged woman Ming Liang befriends ironically tells him that guy who protects his girlfriend is a real man, working the wound of Ming Liang’s bruised masculinity and causing him to double down on his frequent insistence that he can protect women, though later he indeed does on separating precocious teen Kiki (Yao Ai-Ning) from the previously diffident best friend who tried to assault her. Having given up on Yu Fang he begins stalking a woman from her acting class, Monica (Annie Chen Ting-Ni), whose admittedly no good ex boyfriend he later beats up assuming it will buy him white knight credits as a protector in the shadows when in reality he’s a total creep who cloned the key to her apartment and has been hiding in her wardrobe later driven into a frenzy by the irony of watching Yu Fang and Monica, the two women he wanted, deciding they’d rather be with each other. 

Part of Ming Liang’s problem is a sense of parental abandonment, something he shares with Yu Fang whose mother abandoned her when young while her relationship with her father, who has recently remarried, has always been strained. After his parents’ divorce, Ming Liang moved in with Yu Fang’s politician father after being palmed off off by his own, the implication being that he has never really been shown parental love or given any guidance about how to live in the world save that he gleaned from the violent video games he constantly plays along with voyeuristic pornography. 

Yu Fang and Ming Liang are attempting to escape the legacy of parental failure, but Monica is left with a much more recent dilemma in her history as an early cam girl named Missy, a character created by her ex, David, who has since moved on. The more Monica tries to chase her dreams, the more her past comes out to haunt her with creepy men for some reason making a point of telling her they saw her sex tape while on some occasions actually playing it for her on their phone. Hoping to crush her spirit, David tells her that she’ll always be Missy, unable to escape the social stigma of having participated in a pornographic video, while she and Yu Fang are subject to a public shaming when a tape of them goes viral allowing the authorities to all but justify Ming Liang’s attack on Yu Fang on the grounds that she stole his girlfriend and therefore was in the wrong as if such feudalistic behaviour could ever be permissible. 

Yu Fang finds herself terrorised by the media storm of the 24hr news cycle, her new life with Xiao Zhang in jeopardy while she feels ever more isolated realising that her father cares less for her wellbeing than the optics in the light of his ongoing political campaign. Ming Liang meanwhile is forever reminding people that his father is rich and influential as if his misuse of his status is a direct rebellion against it and the parents he feels abandoned him. The fact that the news essentially reframes the slashing incident as a defence of heterosexual love, demonising same sex relationships, only emphasises the tyranny of outdated social prejudice and misogyny as Yu Fang becomes the villain and Ming Liang the victim entirely ignoring his predatory stalking of Monica and otherwise disturbing behaviour. It may not be possible to effectively move on from the past, overcome the legacy of parental abandonment and develop the ability to trust in others, but there may be less destructive ways to take the past with you if only in finding someone willing to share your burden. 


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

Festival trailer (English subtitles)

Images: © changheFilms 2021

Violent Streets (暴力街, Hideo Gosha, 1974)

“Nothing’s like it used to be anymore” sighs a woman who’s had to betray herself but has tried to make break for it only to discover there is no way back. Hideo Gosha’s Violent Streets (暴力街, Boryoku Gai) is like many films of its era about the changing nature of the yakuza in an age of corporatised gangsterdom. Now “legitimate businessmen” who claim to no longer deal in thuggery, their crimes are of a more organised kind though a turf war’s still a turf war even if you’re fighting from the boardroom rather than simply getting petty street punks to fight it for you in the streets. 

In a touch of irony, former yakuza Noboru Ando stars as a man who’s tried to leave the life behind but is pulled back into underworld intrigue when his former foot soldiers mount an ill-advised bid for revenge against the clan they feel betrayed them. After serving eight years in prison for participating in the last turf war, Egawa was given flamenco bar Madrid on the condition that he dissolve his family and attempt to go straight as a legitimate businessman. The Togiku gang has since gone legit and distanced itself from most of its old school yakuza like Egawa. But now a yakuza conglomerate from Osaka is moving in on their old turf and the Togiku want the Madrid back as a bulwark against incursion from the west which is why they’ve been sending the boys round to cause trouble in the bar. 

Egawa is the classic ex-gangster who wants to turn himself around but is largely unable to adapt to life in a changing society. He is technically in a relationship with a bar hostess who has a severe drinking problem in part exacerbated by his inability to get over his former girlfriend who left him and married the boss, Gohara, while he was in prison. His former foot soldiers attempt to convince him to get the gang back together and take revenge, resentful of having been used and discarded, but he tells them to let it go, that they’ve all got “honest jobs” and that they should try to live as best they can. Like him, the guys are ill-equipped to make new lives in the consumerist society and cannot move on from the post-war past. Hoping to engineer a turf war between the Osaka guys and Togiku, they kidnap a popular TV personality/pop singer (Minami Nakatsugawa) attached to a station which Togiku controls and frame a rival affiliated with the Osakans for taking her. 

This just goes to show the various ways in which newly corporatised yakuza have expanded their business portfolio, heavily participating in the entertainment industry moving beyond bars, clubs, and the sex trade into mainstream television and idol stars. Egawa’s old friend Yazaki (Akira Kobayashi) is his opposing number, just as caged but trapped within the confines of the new gangsterdom, reprimanded by his boss for raiding the rival studio’s offices and undoing the gang’s attempt to rebrand themselves as legitimate businessmen rather than violent street thugs. “I can’t stand being humiliated” he explains as Gohara points out he’s stepped right into their trap now giving the Osakans an excuse for retaliation. “The Togiku group is a defanged, domesticated dog” Yazaki barks, “I can’t pretend to be an obedient company employee forever and do nothing”. 

Neither man is able to progress into the new era of rising prosperity, both little more than caged animals thrashing around trying to break free but continually crashing into the bars. Just as Egawa’s old guys had tried to engineer a turf war hoping that the two gangs would take each other out and leave a vacuum they could fill, arch boss Shimamura (Tetsuro Tanba) flies above the city in a helicopter as the “worms fight among themselves” and observes the chaos below as he completes his silent conquest of the contemporary economy like some modern day Nobunaga of corporatised gangsterdom. 

Taking over the Togiku through a process of corporate infiltration and gradually ridding themselves of all the old school yakuza ill-suited to the shady salaryman life, the contrast between the world of cabaret bars and back street dives and Shimamura’s smart suits and helicopters couldn’t be more stark. A slightly sour note is struck by the use of a transgender assassin (Madame Joy) who performs a lesbian floorshow by day and kills by night while working with a bald sidekick who carries a parrot on his shoulder, her coldness bearing out the tendency of yakuza movies to associate queerness with sadistic savagery. Gosha rams his point home with the otherwise surreal scene of a pile of abandoned mannequins by a swamp that becomes a popular yakuza kill site homing in on the emptiness of their eyes and the uncanniness of dismembered bodies, mere empty shells just like the men who die in this literal wasteland. Egawa perhaps feels himself to be a man already dead long before being pushed towards his act of futile rebellion, somewhere between sitting duck and caged dog fighting for his life between the chicken coops of a moribund small-town Japan. Marching to a frenetic flamenco beat of rising passions and barely contained rage, Violent Streets leaves its former foot soldiers with nowhere to go but down while their duplicitous masters continue to prosper riding the consumerist wave into a new and prosperous future.


Violent Streets opens at New York’s Metrograph on Dec. 16 as part of Hideo Gosha x 3

Trailer (English subtitles)

24 (Royston Tan, 2021)

A recently deceased boom operator (James Choong) cleaves himself away from the world through sound in Roystan Tan’s strangely moving meditation on mortality, 24. There are of course 24 frames to a second, but there are also 24 hours in a day and a continuous sequence of days that add up to a life much in the same way expanding sequences of 24 frames result in a film. Divided into 24 vignettes most of which find the sound man invisible, darting about capturing diegetic sound of people discussing life and death or else of nature as he takes stock of the world he’s leaving, the film presents a composite mosaic of human existence. “But now we live in separate worlds” a prince from an opera sadly laments as much like the sound man he prepares for eternal exile, vowing to return even as his bereaved family vow that “stories of his life will be remembered”.

In any case, the first place we find the sound man is on the set of a gay porn film, an act of minor provocation against the conservative atmosphere of the Singaporean film industry. He then appears on a rooftop overlooking the city and on to the middle of a verdant forest where he’s later enveloped in mist. His passage seems random and etherial but also with some kind of hidden direction. He picks up fights behind the walls that hint at societal discord while offering silent comfort to those who appear to be in some kind of despair, a young woman performing an emotional dubbing script pleading with her elderly father to remember her much as the sound man hopes someone will remember him. 

An affable cemetery caretaker advises him to visit his family, for children soon grow up while two women look for clothes for dead, offerings they can burn to make the afterlife a little more bearable. The sound man records a traditional Chinese opera about a family grieving a son perhaps still unprepared to confront his own before witnessing a poignant scene of a little boy calling out for his father as his distraught mother bathes him. Only the child, the grave digger, and later a mortician to whom the sound man makes his only sound seem to be able to see him. But then isn’t the sound man always invisible to us? His boom entering the frame is greeted with embarrassment, we aren’t supposed to see him but we know he’s there. Without him this world would be silent. His boom brings sound into focus and allows those whose voices are often ignored to be heard. A bemused expression on his face, the sound man rides in a truck full of migrant workers who are also now in a separate world from their families vowing one day to return. 

Then again he listens to a trio of men bicker about the rising cost of weddings and childbirth lamenting that everything costs money even life and death, as it seems. He watches as his family prepare to burn offerings for him, arguing with each other as they lay them out, as if they had all gone on a picnic to celebrate a birthday rather than seeking to mark the passing of a man who died too young. Standing in the corner at his own funeral he shakes while silently sobbing as friends and relatives file past his grieving wife. Meanwhile, his former director visits a taoist priest to find out if he’s doing OK in the afterlife, regretting that he never got to invite him to his new house and wondering if he might have visited in the form of a butterfly who flew in shortly after he arrived. The priest rattles his tools and speaks in an incomprehensible language translated by his assistant, the irony being that the sound man is right there only he can’t see him. On his travels the sound man encounters fear and loneliness and pain, but also kindness and tranquility and knows that he was loved and that there are those who will remember him who we never see. A poignant voyage through a life in 24 frames, Royston Tan’s haunting drama casts its deadpan hero on a wandering journey towards an inevitable conclusion leaving him an exile from the world of the living but also an observer of everything it means to be alive in all of its noisy extremities.


24 screened as part of this year’s Five Flavours Film Festival and is available to stream in Poland until 4th December.

Original trailer (dialogue free)

Coming to You (너에게 가는 길, Byun Gyu-ri, 2021)

South Korea is one of the least progressive Asian nations when it comes to the rights of the LGBTQ+ community who often face social prejudice and outright hostility from the religious right. A counter protestor at a Pride rally in Byun Gyu-ri’s documentary Coming to You (너에게 가는 길, Neoege Ganeun Gil) loudly screams in the face of allies, claiming to love his nation which is why he’s bringing his kids up to be model Korean citizens while insisting, incorrectly, that homosexuality is “illegal” and the Pride goers all need to leave the country as soon as possible. 

The man is perhaps an extreme case, but it’s just this kind of aggressive hostility that led two mothers to fear for their children even as they struggled internally to accept their their coming out. Firefighter Nabi had no idea what to think when her only child Hangyeol told her that they hated their body so much it had led to them experiencing suicidal thoughts. Nabi simply thought it was a phase or else that it was born of the discrimination women face in society and told Hangyeol so directly which only added to their mounting depression and sense of impossibility. Air hostess Vivian meanwhile was stunned when her son Yejoon handed her a letter that began “I am a homosexual”. Though she was accustomed to meeting all kinds of people in her work, she couldn’t quite take in what her son had told her and was then fearful that his life would be difficult or lonely going so far as to apologise for having given birth to him. 

Both women have since become staunch defenders of their children’s right to happiness through their involvement with PFLAG, an organisation for parents of LGBTQ+ children yet they are still frustrated by their conservative nation and its slow progress towards equality. Hangyeol’s chief problem is that they are unable to find steady employment because of the mismatch between their identity documents and gender presentation. On trying to get their gender changed from female, which they were assigned at birth, to male, they face several hurdles including an arcane regulation that insists that even as adults those wishing to legally change their gender must have the permission of both parents (the law was abandoned only in 2019). This is obviously difficult for many transgender people who may have become estranged from their families or otherwise not wish to contact them, leaving aside the absurdity of needing to ask for permission for anything at all when over the age of majority. Meanwhile, Hangyeol also struggles because of the narrow criteria which insist that an applicant should have the matching genitalia for the gender they have requested be recognised on the form which is something they are not currently interested in pursuing. Another judge at the district level is however much more sympathetic and does not make the same demand, simply telling Hangyeol that along with their mother’s testimony all the evidence submitted makes it “obvious” that they are male, telling them to go out and live with pride while apologising for their “intolerant” nation.

Vivian’s son Yejoon meanwhile decided to escape the hostile environment in Korea to study abroad in Canada where he hoped he could live openly as a gay man but has discovered that though this is largely true he still feels somewhat out of place as a Korean living in a foreign culture. Vivian admits that she hoped he would stay in Canada though it meant him being apart from her because his life would be much easier there, though Yejoon eventually makes the decision to move home after falling in love with the friend of a friend he met on his last trip back. One of Vivian’s chief worries had been that Yejoon would be lonely. While thankful that he has found someone with whom he can share his life, she realises that being married isn’t the be all and end all yet continues to campaign for the legalisation of same sex marriage so her son can have the same legal rights as anyone else. Yejoon’s boyfriend Seongjun only recently came out to his mother who is obviously on a bit of a learning curve but quickly comes to accept the boys’ relationship and even attends a PFLAG meeting that gives her even more confidence in her decision. 

Still, it’s clear that there is still a lot of prejudice to be overcome. Nabi is at one point hit in the face by an angry protestor at Pride while the police do nothing, and is intensely worried about her child’s wellbeing especially after seeing a report on the news about radical feminists hounding a transgender student out of an all female university. Yejoon and Seongjung have decided that they don’t necessarily want to be flag wavers but are determined to live happily with the support of both their families in spite of whatever social prejudice they may face. As for Vivian and Nabi, they are committed to fighting for their children’s rights, but also breaking with tradition in abandoning the hierarchal nature of the traditional family to stand shoulder to shoulder with them as they do their best to push for social change in an all too conservative nation. 


Coming to You screened as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

When the Dawn Comes (黎明到來的那一天, Zhang Hong-Jie, 2021)

When Chi Chia-Wei appealed to the Legislative Yuan for marriage equality in 1986, he was told that “homosexuals are perverted minorities that seek to disrupt social morals for their own sexual desires”. 33 years later in 2019, Taiwan became the first Asian nation to legalise same-sex marriage. Zhang Hong-Jie’s documentary When the Dawn Comes (黎明到來的那一天, límíng dàolái de nà yī tiān) follows Chi during the final days of the campaign amid a counter offensive from conservative groups who hoped to prevent the legislative change going ahead. 

Chi has been a literal flag bearer for the LGBTQ+ community, a familiar sight at protests and pride parades well known for climbing to the highest point available and waving a rainbow flag where no one can miss it. Indeed the documentary captures him doing just this despite his advancing age and the efforts of the authorities to prevent him. His campaign has been a long one, beginning when he was just a young man as the opening sequence points out with dark hair who held a press conference and came out publicly as a gay man becoming the first in Taiwan to do so. Now his hair is grey, and he is still fighting the same the battle though when this battle is done he knows there will be others still to fight. 

When he first began his campaign for marriage equality Chi was battling the stigmatisation of the gay community during the AIDS crisis, continuing to argue that advocacy for gay rights and AIDS prevention should be carried out at the same time. In some ways subverting the prejudice shown against him, Chi became a well known figure handing condoms out in the streets wearing a series of striking outfits as a kind of performance art. As another advocate points out, what made his approach different was that it refused to submit to internalised shame in normalising the idea of gay sex while encouraging safe practice and educating both the gay and straight communities about the importance of sexual health. 

Nevertheless, Chi was not uncontroversial. Though he took a hands on approach in AIDS activism, setting up a hospice for those with nowhere else to go, he was criticised for inviting the press to cover it leading some of the patients to leave resenting Chi for breaching their privacy. He then went on to sue three men whom he accused of hiding their diagnosis and going on to knowingly infect others, something that was also widely criticised in the community for essentially outing these men and their partners publicly and potentially setting a dangerous precedent when it comes to medical privacy. One fellow activist speculates that Chi may have justified his actions on the grounds of discouraging others from doing the same but points out that it in part had the reverse effect with some unwilling to be tested at all fearful that they might end up getting sued too if the test came back positive. On the other hand, he also regularly submitted blood samples on behalf of men who were too afraid to go in person lest their private lives be exposed. At one point Chi became such a thorn in the authorities’ side that they tried to frame him for a random crime and eventually sent him to prison for five months for “misappropriating waste”. 

As for himself, Chi is also in a somewhat difficult position in that his longterm partner (who is never seen in the documentary) is still in effect closeted and facing pressure from his family to marry. Asked if they personally plan to marry once the law goes into effect, Chi can’t really answer suggesting only that they may do once his partner’s father passes away explaining that he is an only child. In one of the hearings, a lawmaker brings up an anxiety about what to do with ancestral tablets while the question of the family line still seems to lie behind prejudice towards same sex relationships. Meanwhile, his partner has long been taking anti-depressants to cope with the pressure of his family’s lack of acceptance, while Chi too is also on numerous kinds of medication for conditions caused by the stress of his work. Even so, once marriage equality is fulfilled, Chi immediately files for a paper marriage with a Malaysian man to challenge the new legislation’s failure to account for international marriages, determined to continue fighting for fully equal rights. Zhang’s documentary never shies away from some of the more controversial aspects of his activism, but nevertheless celebrates the determination of a man who dedicated his life to a cause for which he was never afraid to stand out and proud.


When the Dawn Comes screens 16th October as part of this year’s Taiwan Film Festival Edinburgh.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Shrieking in the Rain (雨に叫べば, Eiji Uchida, 2021)

“Let’s change Japanese film” a duplicitous distributor tries to convince a diffident director though his “creators first” stance predictably turns out to be somewhat disingenuous. Inhabiting the same territory as Netflix’s Naked Director, Eiji Uchida’s meta dramedy Shrieking in the Rain (雨に叫べば, Ame ni Sakebeba) finds a young woman struggling to take charge of her artistic vision while plagued by workplace sexism, commercial concerns, and absurd censorship regulations but finally claiming her space and along with it her right to make art even if not quite everyone understands it, 

Set entirely on a Toei lot in the summer of 1988, the film opens with rookie director Hanako (Marika Matsumoto) locking herself inside a car with her hands clamped over her ears, fed up with the chaos that seems to surround her. How Hanako got the job in the first place is anyone’s guess, but it later becomes clear that she is in a sense being exploited by the producer, Tachibana (Kazuya Takahashi), who thinks a pretty young girl directing a softcore porno is a selling point in itself. Meanwhile, he’s teamed up with an US-based production company and its Japanese producer, Inoue (Kiyohiko Shibukawa), who seems fairly exasperated by the Japanese-style shoot and despite his pretty words is all about the business. For him, the main selling points are the actors, one a young idol star intending to boost his profile by getting into films and the other a veteran actress stripping off for the first time in an attempt to revitalise her fading career. 

Surrounded by male industry veterans, Hanako struggles to get her voice heard and feels under confident on set as they encircle her and bark orders she doesn’t quite understand. Her decisions are continually overruled by the male AD, cameraman, and finally Tachibana who always has his mind on the bottom line while Hanako’s inability to express herself to the crew results in endless takes of scenes that others tell her are “pointless” and should be cut despite her protestations that they are essential to the piece. A forthright female makeup artist (Chika Uchida) asks if filmmaking should really be this heartless as she watches Hanako humiliated by the chauvinistic cameraman who forces her to get on her knees and beg for help, while a more sympathetic grip (Gaku Hamada) later tells her that becoming a successful director has little to do with talent and a lot to do with the art of compromise. 

Nevertheless, Hanako tries to hold on to her artistic vision even while some roll their eyes considering the project is a softcore romantic melodrama revolving around a love triangle involving two brothers in love with same woman. Inoue claps back that film is a business, admitting that when he said creators first he just meant the ones that make money. According to him, anyone could direct the film because all anyone’s interested in is the actress’ bared breasts and the teenybopper appeal of top idol Shinji. Or in other words, it doesn’t really need to be good, it’s going to sell anyway. In any case, it seems incongruous to cast a squeaky clean idol in an edgy erotic drama especially considering that if they want to market it to his fans then they need to secure a rating which allows them to see it without adult supervision. Business concerns and censorship eventually collide when the rather befuddled censor puts a red line through some of their kink and explains that the actress’ third hip thrust has just earned them an X rating. 

Unlike Hanako and her similarly troubled junior camerawoman Yoshie (Serena Motola), veteran actress Kaede at least knows how to advocate for herself and get what she wants on set so that she can do her best work. Only in this case doing her best work means she wants to go for real with arrogant idol star Shinji who refuses to wear a modesty sock or trim his pubic hair to fit in with the arcane regulations of the censors board. Shinji is brought to task by aspiring actor Kazuto who is pissed off by his unprofessional behaviour while struggling to get a foothold in a difficult industry and apparently finding one through a romantic relationship with the producer which otherwise seems to be a secret from cast and crew. 

In any case a final confrontation prompts a rebellion against Inoue’s production line metaphor as the crew reaffirm that they are a team working together on an artistic endeavour not mere cogs in his machine. Reemerging in bright red lipstick, Hanako returns to retake what’s hers boldly claiming her artistic vision and taking charge on set before descending into an unexpected musical number. With a retro sensibility, the film neatly echoes late 80s production style with a cutesy background score often heard in movies of the era while posters for top Toei movies from the 70s and 80s such as Yukihiro Sawada’s No Grave for Us line the walls. A meta rebuke against the constraints placed on filmmakers by those who shout “creators first” to bolster their image but never follow through Shrieking in the Rain, is at once a homage to the classic days of low budget Toei erotica and an inspirational tale of an artist finding her voice in a sometimes repressive industry.


Shrieking in the Rain screened as part of this year’s Camera Japan.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

I am More (모어, Lee Il-ha, 2021)

I am More (모어, More) is as much a mission statement as it is a simple piece of biographical information in Lee Il-ha’s musical documentary following transgender drag artist More. Born in Korea but based in Japan since 2000, Lee’s previous documentaries focused on the position of Zainichi Koreans but with I am More he explores the position of minorities within Korea itself while providing a platform for More to express herself fluently through music and performance art. 

More describes herself as having a love hate relationship with drag which she has been performing for over 20 years in the bars and clubs of Itaewon. She relates that she still has a gun in her heart and that going to perform is like going on duty while throwing shade on the Western customers at her bar and their $1 tips. Even so, drag was a liberating experience for her on arriving in the city in which attitudes towards gender norms were much stricter than they had been in the small town where she grew up even if they had not exactly been much warmer there. Embarking on her studies at Seoul University of the Arts, a fellow student punched her in the face and told her to lose her feminity while when forced to do military service she was briefly placed in a mental hospital. 

More’s warmhearted and completely accepting mother claims that there was no bullying during More’s childhood and that nobody thought much of her atypical gender presentation, but More also reveals that she once tried to take her own life during high school but survived and in fact went straight to an exam to avoid getting in trouble for missing classes. Her teacher also recalls another student whom he describes as “effeminate” and apologises for the way they were treated by their classmates while More seems to have developed a friendship with one of the bullies who tormented her but also showed her kindness. He reflects on the various ways their perspective was “limited” by their small-town upbringing remembering how small he felt on going to the city and realising he was no longer at the top of the social hierarchy. 

The situation may be very different than it was during More’s childhood, but the LGBTQ+ community still faces prejudice and discrimination from religious groups who are seen protesting pride events and harassing attendees while a patriotic song from the era of dictatorship singing of “our Korea” ironically plays in the background. More is in a longterm relationship with a Russian man, Zhenya, whose immigration status is precarious as he is stuck on a job seeker’s visa. Same sex marriage is not recognised in Korea meaning that he is unable to apply as a spouse and is in the midst of trying to gain Korean citizenship. Meanwhile despite having a PhD in chemistry he is currently unemployed and losing himself in the comparatively tranquil world of Pokémon Go where he says the monsters are kinder than people. Though they have been together a long time, some of it on and off as Zhenya later implies, Lee follows More as she introduces Zhenya to her parents who welcome him with open arms and make sure to invite him to all the major celebrations as More’s partner seeing as he obviously has no other family in Korea to spend them with. 

Meanwhile, Lee spends much of the documentary focussing on More’s rehearsals for a show in New York celebrating the 50th anniversary of Stonewall during which she develops a friendship with Hedwig and the Angry Inch star John Cameron Mitchell who later travels to Korea and remarks on how difficult it can be to be yourself in a conformist society where individuality can sometimes be read as selfishness. Hedwig in a sense brings things full circle with a reference back to More’s own Wig in a Box moment discovering drag in Itaewon while Lee is careful to give her her own space to express herself as she lip syncs to iconic pop songs and performs poetry and performance art in elaborate outfits at Seoul landmarks as if beckoning towards a new and more inclusive culture. A vibrant portrait of a queer artist who is absolutely herself I am More more than lives up to its name in its electric advocation for a world of love and joy. 


I am More screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival. It will also be screening in London on 13th November as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

Festival trailer (dialogue free)

Though the film’s subtitles refer to More as “he”, she has confirmed with festival organisers that she prefers feminine pronouns.

Images: ⓒ2021 EXPOSED FILM, All Rights Reserved

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)