Born to be Human (生而為人, Lily Ni, 2021)

Taiwan is often regarded as among the more liberal of Asian nations, but it is certainly not free of outdated ideas of gender and sexuality as Lily Ni’s powerful sci-fi-inflected drama Born to Be Human (生而為人, Shēng ér Wèirén) makes clear. Like the similarly themed Metamorphosis from the Philippines which also made much of butterfly imagery, Born to Be Human finds a teenager’s ordinary existence upended by the sudden discovery that they are intersex along with the realisation that they have almost no agency over their medical decisions, but is ultimately more concerned with undermining the fallacy of the gender binary along with the sometimes duplicitous actions of the medical profession than with exploring the intersex identity. 

Unpopular at school 14-year-old Shi-nan (Lily Lee) is a regular teenage boy who secretly buys porn mags from the old man on the corner and enjoys playing online video games. Still embarrassed about his body, he is deeply worried on noticing blood in his urine after experiencing painful stomach cramps and half-convinces himself he has bladder cancer while too anxious to tell his parents or seek medical help. When his parents eventually find out they take him straight to the hospital but are fobbed off by an overworked doctor who diagnoses him with a urinary tract infection caused by an infected foreskin, something which they assume can be fixed by circumcision. Returning to school after some time off to recover, however, the problem recurs with Shi-nan collapsing during a sports lesson his shorts stained with blood. A more comprehensive medical exam reveals that Shi-nan is in fact intersex and has a functioning womb directly connected to external male genitalia. 

This unfortunately brings Shi-nan into the orbit of Dr. Lee (Yin Jau-Der), apparently a specialist in urology with an improbably futuristic office, who immediately latches on to Shi-nan’s case as a means of advancing his own career. He recommends to Shi-nan’s parents that they “correct” his physical body according to his chromosomal makeup, explaining that he may be at increased risk of cancer maintaining both sets of sex characteristics. On discovering the analysis has come back female, Shi-nan’s father’s first question is how he can carry on the family name if his son is now a daughter while his mother and the doctor fixate on Shi-nan’s viable womb and the all important ability to procreate. Feeling he will not understand, the parents decide not to share his medical diagnosis with Shi-nan even while he continues to believe that he is dying from bladder cancer, telling him only that he will undergo circumcision signing the consent forms for his gender confirmation surgery without ever consulting him. 

Already 14 years old and having lived all his life as a boy, this forced gender transition provokes a secondary sense of dysphoria as Shi-nan becomes Shi-lan and moves to the capital to attend an elite school presumably offered some kind of financial incentive from Dr. Lee who continues to monitor her progress. Removed from her previous environment, Shi-lan is plunged into hyper femininity as if the entirety of her previous personality had been erased. On her birthday she is given a pink cake with frills and a selection of dolls, while her bedroom is similarly pink and frilly, apparently part of Dr. Lee’s treatment programme to acclimatise Shi-lan to her new identity. Even her mother laments that she’s behind on her feminine education, unable to cook or do chores which she fears will interfere with her ability to get married. Shi-lan says she doesn’t intend to marry, but her refusal is met only with confusion as if a woman’s entire purpose lies in marriage and childbirth. Of course, the secondary issue is that Shi-lan is sexually attracted to women, upset and embarrassed to receive a love letter from a boy at school while pining for her sympathetic deskmate who later becomes her first friend. 

Meanwhile, she is forced to adopt a female personality more or less against her will, later explaining an old photo of herself as one of a younger brother who has unfortunately passed away but will remain always in her heart. Having been bullied at her last school, Shi-lan fears discovery but is subject to a secondary prejudice after a nosy girl goes through her bag and finds a bottle of pills she identifies as being for the treatment of depression later getting her parents to complain to the school that they shouldn’t be forced to share a class with a “mental patient”. 

In fact, Shi-lan has been lied to again, the pills aren’t for depression and she is in fact being tricked to take them against her will as part of her forced transition. She describes herself as a “monster”, neither male nor female, and is acutely compelled to feel that those are her only two options. Her new friend, Tian Qi (Bonnie Liang Ru-Xuan), takes her to a Taiwanese opera performance starring her mother in which a female scholar poses as a man in order to get her education only to fall for a classmate making it clear that an idea of gender fluidity has cultural currency yet Shi-lan has been denied the right to define her own identity, told that what she is is wrong or incomplete, and ultimately reduced to a subject for experimentation by an unethical doctor. Confronting him to be told he has turned her into a “normal person”, she later insists that she can ruin his work just as he has ruined her life, walking through a market witnessing flesh being butchered and fish gutted, before buying a bouquet of sunflowers echoing those on the doctor’s jigsaw puzzle. Whatever her intentions, Shi-lan perhaps comes into herself even if with a dark purpose in mind, actively claiming an identity that is defiantly her own in rebellion against a conservative society that refuses to accept her for all that she is.


Born to be Human screened as part of the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival

Original trailer (dialogue free)

Wrath of Desire (愛・殺, Zero Chou, 2021)

“Desire is the only truth. The body never lies” according to the prison missives penned by the heroine of Zero Chou’s latest meditation on sex, death, guilt, and repression, Wrath of Desire (愛・殺, Ài・Shā). As the title perhaps implies, Chou frames her epic tale in the extremes of Greek tragedy, opening with an ethereal desert scene and cryptic Butoh dance that equates desire with death as the victim later laments “it was I myself who pointed the knife at my heart”. 

The dreamlike opening gives way to a prophetic scene of violence as an androgynous young woman fends off an attack from a “burglar” who is later discovered to be part of a conspiracy sent to steal evidence that could be used against her father, a political candidate anxious that her existence as his love child not affect his chances of election. Visibly shaking from her traumatic encounter, Phoenix Du (Peace Yang) is comforted by the sympathetic female prosecutor in charge of her case, Jade Liu (Weng Chia-Wei), who finds herself somehow captivated by the intense tattoo artist. Witnessing her capacity for violence after they are attacked by more of the mayor’s thugs when she perhaps inappropriately offers her a ride home from the courthouse, Jade takes Phoenix back to her flat to tend to her wounds only to find herself overcome by desire when Phoenix playfully kisses her as if to test her naive hypocrisy. The two women share a single night of intense passion, but Jade is a pastor’s daughter and failure to resist her “blasphemous” desires leaves her only with shame and fear. In retaliation she has Phoenix sentenced to three years in prison hoping to forget her, while Phoenix spends her time inside writing 372 extremely intense love letters insistent that the body doesn’t lie and convinced that Jade has in fact imprisoned herself in her wilful repression. 

God is always between them, a cross hanging from the rear mirror in Jade’s car as they make their high speed getaway while it’s the Lord’s name that Jade cries out during their night of passion but out of guilt more than ecstasy as Phoenix urges her to let herself go, aware it seems that she continues to struggle against herself. While Phoenix is inside, Jade finds herself drawn to an androgynous young man, Meng Ye (Hsu Yu-Ting), who is accused of stabbing a cousin (Huang Shang-Ho) who had become his legal guardian and thereafter molested him. Referring to her as “sister’ Meng Ye reminds Jade of the younger brother who took his own life after being rejected by their religious family because of his homosexuality, something which undoubtedly contributes to her ongoing inability to accept her same sex desires describing her feelings for Phoenix as lust rather than love, something dirty and sinful to be rejected. After becoming aware of her inner conflict, Meng Ye suggests a platonic marriage to create a “family free from desire”, offering Jade the “stable family” she’s been looking for while he gains “social acceptance”. Yet on Phoenix’s release it’s Meng Ye who determines on bringing her into their life as a “friend” only to find himself consumed by jealousy while questioning the nature of desire. 

Chou intercuts the non-linear action with a series of black and white intertitles featuring Phoenix’s charred letters along with noirish, Rashomon-esque testimony from a handcuffed Jade and Meng Ye along with a third woman, Chrys (Chen Yu-Chun), who had apparently fallen for Phoenix in prison only to remain frustrated by her lack of interest in anyone outside of Jade. “Sex without love is as empty as violence without hate” Phoenix writes in one of her letters, repeating that the body does not lie and Jade is only harming herself in her continued denial. Phoenix is indeed correct, though 372 letters is rather excessive as is her stalkerish insistence in the face of Jade’s refusal. Nevertheless the ménage à trois eventually turns dark as Meng Ye determines to exorcise his resentment by making Phoenix betray herself in unmasking the hypocritical repression of her own desires. Meng Ye claims he’s a “pet” to his cousin and brother to Jade, what he wants from Phoenix is a love she might not choose to give him, but is also bound for a dark and nihilistic destination.

Though the mayoral conspiracy angle is an outlandish detail strangely forgotten in the ongoing narrative, all three are in a sense wounded orphans betrayed by parental failure and left adrift without firm anchor in a hostile society each looking for safe harbour whether in the certainty of bodily desire, its rejection, or subversion. Apparently the “first” in a six film series each set in different Asian cities (though the “second” The Substitute set in Beijing and filmed in 2017 is currently streaming via Gagaoolala, as is the reported third We Are Gamily set in Chengdu now streaming as a five-part webseries while the feature edit is also streaming via Amazon Prime US), Chou’s latest more than lives up to its name as the trio find themselves consumed by the fire of desire while unable to extricate themselves from a complex spiral of shame and repression.


Wrath of Desire screened as part of the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Journey to the West (Voyage en Occident, Jill Coulon, 2016)

Ironically taking its title from the classic Chinese legend of the monk Xuanzang who travelled in order to bring Buddhism back to China, Jill Coulon’s Journey to the West (Voyage en Occident) follows a group of Chinese tourists on a 12-day coach tour through Europe which will apparently take them through six countries though they will be disembarking only infrequently. As the tour guide Huo explains during his opening speech, Chinese tourists were once greeted by vaguely offensive signs in their native language instructing them to avoid being noisy or spitting but these have now been replaced by those advising that their Chinese credit cards are readily acceptable. 

According to Huo only 8% of Chinese people currently hold a passport but more and more are venturing abroad. Nevertheless, they are still ambassadors for China and so he reminds them to be careful of the impression that they make. In any case, they will spend relatively little time on the ground, arriving in Rome at 9am they leave at 1.15 and though they appear to have a lot of free roaming time much of the trip is micromanaged with meals already booked in Chinese restaurants. Embedded with the travellers, Coulon does not spend much time getting to know them or discovering their various backgrounds and reasons for choosing this method of travel but some do speculate on the tendency of Chinese people to do everything at speed wondering if Europeans are more laidback because their societies are already “developed” and so they can afford to spend time in the present without feeling the need to forge the future. 

Bringing the 12-day trip down to an hour of viewing time adds a satirical bent to the breakneck speed, though it does seem that some travellers at least are mainly interested in ticking off the most famous attractions as quickly as possible. Offering commentary as they pass through the picturesque town of Lucerne, Huo points out the Rolex store before ironically juxtaposing the beauty of the Alps with the Hermès boutique directly opposite. Most of the tourists are indeed in it for the shopping, several picking up a luxury watch while one enviously observes that this seems to be a very wealthy town filled with exorbitantly priced sports cars as if the expense meant nothing to them at all. Passing through Paris we see the tourists laden with bags from top designer stores, one ironically wearing an Armani T-shirt with a little Chairman Mao pin directly underneath the logo. Some meanwhile tire of the ceaseless consumerism and defiantly decide to go somewhere different with no shopping opportunities if only to avoid other Chinese tourists. 

Despite his long years working in the tourist trade, Huo himself does not seem to be free of stereotypical impressions of Europeans, explaining that “true” French women are blonde with green eyes and that the French go on strike in the spring, holiday in the summer, and go skiing in winter leaving only the autumn for work all of which he describes as “bad capitalism”, implying one assumes that China’s excessive work culture is “good capitalism”. Another tourist however reflects enviously on the fact that the French apparently only work 150 days a year while her partner points out that if you count non-weekdays China also offers around 130 days off which doesn’t seem so bad to him even if he’s incredulous about four day weekends and getting a day in lieu if a public holiday falls on a Saturday or Sunday. This perhaps contributes to another tourist’s conclusion that the French are “lazy” because of the disinterested way a guard at a museum swiped his ticket, sitting with his legs crossed.

A pair of old ladies, meanwhile reflect on the way that European cities have preserved traces of their history with ancient ruins visible in local parks something she feels would have been regarded as a nuisance in China and destroyed either by the authorities or malicious persons. While Huo relates the various stereotypes he’s encountered from foreign tourists, that the Chinese people have no freedom and might not know what a washing machine is, another young woman enquires if they have internet up in the mountains only to be told that the internet and online shopping are not as developed in Europe because the prohibitive costs prevent an effective delivery infrastructure, she ironically adding that in China workers cost nothing. In his closing speech, however, Huo remarks on the awkwardness of responding to the accusation of wealth unable to answer either that he is very rich or very poor opting only for the disingenuous statement that “China is a developing country”. The tourists might not be looking for spiritual enlightenment like Xuanzang, but still as one puts it they have their goals and they have perhaps been achieved as they circle back around to Milan and the plane that will take them home.  


Journey to the West streams in the US until March 31 as part of the 12th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

No. 76 Horror Bookstore: Tin of Fear (76号恐怖書店之恐懼罐頭, David Chuang & Hung Tzu-peng, 2020)

The first in a potential franchise, David Chuang & Hung Tzu-peng’s chilling anthology 76 Horror Bookstore: Tin of Fear (76号恐怖書店之恐懼罐頭, 76-Hào Kǒngbù Shūdiàn zhī Kǒngjù Guàntou) adapts four short stories from the online novel series of the same name. Somewhat interconnected and featuring some of the same cast, the four episodes each present a different kind of horror but all featuring a rather grisly spin from the secrets contained in the grim apartment building of the first instalment to the heartbreaking familial drama of the last as a collection of contemporary lost souls attempt to make sense of life, death, and that which exists somewhere in between. 

Titled “Rent”, the first chapter sees single mother Miss Ho (Esther Huang) leave her young son behind to travel to Taipei hoping to earn money through sex work in order to buy a house in which they can live together. Unfortunately, however, her city existence is even grimmer than expected, inhabiting a rundown apartment block overseen by an extremely creepy landlord (Lai Hao-Zhe) who informs her that the previous tenant, whose belongings are still in the room, abruptly disappeared without trace. “When your son grows up, he’ll be able to protect you” the landlord adds in rather sexist fashion finally getting round to fixing the lock on her door while singing unsettling nursery rhymes about slow rats getting eaten alive. Gradually Miss Ho becomes aware that the building is home to a dark secret connected with the sad fate of one particular family who apparently attempted to resist the urban renewal programme but ironically finds that her own victory lies in a sense with complicity. 

Meanwhile, in Hunger a convict (Joe Chang Shu-Wei) wakes up on the outside after a traumatic episode only to discover that in this version of reality food has been declared illegal. The clerk at a convenience store (Troy Liu Tzu-Chuan) reacts to his polite request for sustenance with shear horror as if he’d just asked him where he might be able to find the weapons grade plutonium or high grade explosives. A strangely dressed man hanging round outside explains that there’s no more food for another 76 days, but he can supply him with some tins for a small fee. Gesturing at the sign inside the store which is currently counting down to a ghost festival might have clued the man in on where he might be if only he had his thinking cap on, but sure enough he finds himself trapped in a purgatorial hellscape and eventually faced with an ironic confrontation as he resolutely fails to take the opportunity to overcome his baser instincts. 

Shifting into teen supernatural romance, Hide and Seek takes a less grisly though no less cruel turn as a bunch of kids head out on an adventure to celebrate the 18th birthday of Xiaoqi (Eric Lin Hui-Ming). Best friend Shaohua (Troy Liu Tzu-Chuan) has organised a camping trip to a supposedly haunted former dormitory yet the conflict here is of a more ordinary kind in that both the boys had unwittingly intended to declare their love to the same girl. Nevertheless, as the haunted house adventure proceeds Xiaoqi begins to to wonder who is haunting who, unwittingly forced into a delayed confession of his repressed emotion. 

Something similar befalls Hsin-chieh (Annie Ting-ni), the 30-something heroine of final instalment Taxi who has recently discovered she is pregnant and is subsequently consumed with maternal anxiety that reflects the loss of each of her parents in very different circumstances along with a possible sacrifice of independence and individual identity. Nagged by the aunt who raised her and seemingly cajoled by her perfectly pleasant, vaguely supportive boyfriend Ah-Shu (Wang Wei), Hsin-chieh leans towards an abortion, ending the relationship and getting a flat of her own but soon finds herself haunted by a creepy little girl and a host of other strange goings on until finally forced to face the legacy of abandonment in order to make peace with the traumatic past, ending a painful cycle of guilt and retribution in a bloody confluence of death and rebirth. Filled with surreal and nightmarish imagery, Taxi is at heart all about forgiveness and moving forward, a fitting end these four gloomy tales of supernatural harassment and guilty consciences finding at least a ray of hope in new life unburdened by fear or shame.


No. 76 Horror Bookstore: Tin of Fear streams in the US March 27 – 31 as part of the 12th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English / Traditional Chinese subtitles)

Chen Uen (千年一問, Wang Wan-Jo, 2020)

Born in Daxi in 1958, Chen Uen became one of Taiwan’s premiere comic book artists eventually publishing in Japan and Hong Kong and later travelling to the Mainland to work in the growing online gaming industry. Sadly after a tumultuous career spanning over 30 years, Chen passed away of a heart attack at the young age of 58 in 2017. Though he had perhaps not always been appreciated to the degree he would have liked in his home country, the artist did receive a posthumous exhibition at the National Palace Museum the summer following his death, apparently the first comic artist ever to have received such an honour. 

Exploring both his life and career, Wang Wan-jo’s engrossing documentary (千年一問, Qiānnián Yī Wèn) paints an enigmatic picture of the complicated artist, bringing his work to life with a series of animatics along with poignant shots of an animated Chen walking the city streets and eventually arriving at his own exhibition. Through interviewing his various collaborators, the image of him which eventually arises is of a man who was at once singleminded, driven by artistic conviction and certain in his skills, and that of a sometimes insecure talent privately hurt by his public failures and resentful that his home nation often failed to embrace his work. 

Like many of his generation, Chen was profoundly influenced by wuxia serials and carried that love into his art, becoming one of the first artists to move away from the then dominant Japanese manga aesthetics drawing inspiration from traditional Chinese ink painting including the use of a brush rather than the pen. In his later, increasingly avant-garde work we see him experimenting further with materials using toothbrushes and sand, scorching the paper with fire or marbling ink in water to achieve his desired effect. As mangaka Tetsuya Chiba (Ashita no Joe) points out, manga panels are constructed with narrative progression in mind yet Chen treated each of his panels as a standalone image with a strongly cinematic vision. This tendency towards directness in his stripped back storytelling leads Chiba and others to offer the slight criticism that to some readers Chen’s comics may have lacked dramatic richness as a consequence. Nevertheless, he soon found himself wooed by Bubble-era Japan, invited by publishing powerhouse Kodansha to collaborate on a series of wuxia-themed projects beginning with The Heroes of Eastern Zhou.

The Japan move would be the first of many, allowing Chen to escape the sense disillusionment he felt in Taiwan while honing his skills as a contractor for a major publishing house willing as his editor testifies to work on whatever they suggested including the ubiquitous cute girls then popular in the Japanese manga market. Unfortunately, however, he does not seem to have settled very comfortably in Tokyo while his wife recounts her difficulties trying to navigate raising their two children while unable to speak the language. The family soon returned to Taiwan, and Chen would make his subsequent moves alone leaving his family behind to work in comics in Hong Kong before moving on to Beijing where he began working on concept art for the then nascent world of online gaming beginning with a franchise inspired by Romance of the Three Kingdoms.  

In an excerpt from a TV interview, Chen describes his comic work as a dream that miraculously came true adding that had he been interested in material comfort he probably would have stuck to jacket art for video games which might have proved more lucrative. His decision to do just that later in his career might then seem like a minor defeat even as it feeds into comments from some of his assistants that he liked to stay ahead of technological change and was keen to experiment with new tools even teaching himself photoshop intuitively while the program lacked Chinese-language support. His colleagues describe him as mercurial, an unhappy person probably lonely away so long from his family yet also fiercely caring and protective of his staff. For Chen, heroes were less fearsome warriors than those who were “unwavering, rational, and polite”, qualities which ironically mirror his own personality though others also call him stubborn, a perfectionist who always did what was right rather than settling for the easy option. A poignant memorial to the under appreciated pioneer of Taiwanese comic art, Wang’s documentary does not set out to solve mystery of Chen but revels in his contradictions while celebrating the glorious complexity of his bold and colourful career. 


Chen Uen streams in the US until March 28 as part of the 12th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Changfeng Town (长风镇, Wang Jing, 2019)

“One strange thing follows another in this town” according to a world weary saloon owner attempting to process the mysterious theft of a handful of billiard balls. Like a magical realist fable, the village at the centre of Wang Jing’s whimsical nostalgia fest Changfeng Town (长风镇, Chángfēng Zhèn) exists slightly out of time, located at the intersection of memory and longing filled both with a sense of existential ennui and the comforting aimlessness of childhood. Yet even here where time passes and doesn’t the ironies of small-town life pervade as the older hero reflects on the wilful secrets and everyday mysteries which exist even in those places where everyone knows everyone and gossip is the lifeblood of the community. 

Narrated by the young “Scabby” (Song Daiwei), so nicknamed because of a prominent scar on the back of his head, Changfeng Town weaves together several stories set across one theoretical summer as seen through the eyes of a group of small boys continually on their periphery. Set comfortably in a “nostalgic past”, the atmosphere of the town shifts from a restrained post-war, early ‘60s tainted innocence towards something perhaps closer to its more logical position somewhere in the early to mid 1980s which of course places it after the Cultural Revolution but before Tiananmen Square in a China filled with a sense of hope and possibility for a brighter future mirroring perhaps Scabby’s own sense of growing adolescent energy. 

Nevertheless, Changfeng Town is a strange place where strange things do indeed happen though less one after another than all at once. Missing billiard balls, a plague of mice, a purifying flood, arrivals and disappearances each changing the unchanging town in small but marked ways, it’s nevertheless a sense of loneliness that defines each of the intersecting tales most of which have to do with misplaced or unfulfilled love. Redhead (Pema Jyad), the teenage ringleader of the local kids nicknamed for his red rinse hairdo, pines for the most beautiful girl in the village, Cai-xia (Luo Wenqing), half-sister of Scabby’s friend Four Eyes (Liu Xinrong) and box office girl at the local picture house, yet she has taken a liking to lovelorn poet Guang (Tao Taotao) who has just had his heart broken by the local school teacher. Redhead’s widowed mother (Cui Nan), meanwhile, has been carrying on an affair with the married local dentist (Wei Xidi), apparently an open secret in the village, while beloved truck driver Xi-shan (Chen Gang) continues to carry a torch for her knowing his love is impossible because he was involved in the accident which killed her husband. 

Known only as The Mute (San Shugong), an old man travels to the station every day with his parrot presumably hoping to meet someone who never arrives. One of the boys says his mother told him that he does so because he mistakenly thinks he can travel to other places by watching the trains go by, but no one really knows because no one really bothers to try to communicate with him. Some attempt to leave the village, occasionally returning like the much changed Redhead now dressed like someone who’s been to the city bringing back with him gifts of modernity such as a remote control Transformer that provokes a falling out between Four Eyes and Scabby which adds to the narrator’s growing sense of disillusionment, but to return is in many ways to fail, to be consumed by nostalgia and unable to move forward. Changfeng Town is also a charming trap. Scabby will soon outgrow it as spring travels towards autumn, the bald spot on the back of his head which gives him his name fast disappearing rendering him Scabby no more. Yet it will always in a sense be there for him, its residents permanently happy even as people come and go. 

Mirroring the ending of The 400 Blows, one of several films playing in the local cinema which also include Spring in a Small Town, A Touch of Zen, Steamboat Bill, Jr, and Nights of Cabiria among others, Wang closes with a freeze frame leaving Scabby “running towards the unknown” abandoning nostalgia in search of the elusive happiness of those who remain behind. Shot with a wistful ethereality, Changfeng Town marries an earthy, small-town rurality with an ironic absurdism as the various stories of its melancholy protagonists weave in and out of each other while remaining strangely unknown in the ever constant, ever changing village of nostalgia.


Changfeng Town streams in the US March 24 – 28 as part of the 12th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

A Summer Trip (川流不“熄”, Feng Keyu, 2021)

Societal change and rising economic prosperity threaten the foundations of the family in Feng Keyu’s charmingly nostalgic intergenerational adventure A Summer Trip (川流不“熄”, Chuān Liú Bù “Xī”) elegantly lensed by Mark Lee Ping-Bing and boasting a typically whimsical score from Joe Hisaishi. In the run-up to the Beijing Olympics, the nation is in a celebratory mood but in a society where everybody works all the time something may be in danger of getting lost. Young Xiaosong (Hu Changlin) is going off the rails (in a fairly minor way) with both the school and grandpa, often left with childcare duties he feels might not quite be his responsibility, leaning towards blaming the parents who are simply not present enough in his life to be able to offer much in the way of guidance. 

A Korean War veteran, grandpa Zhang Dachuan (Yang Xinming) is beginning to feel as obsolete as the discontinued parts he needs to repair his ancient jeep. He can’t get his head round mobile phones, forever pressing hang up when he means to press answer and causing accidental offence in the process. Resenting the implication that he’s not got much to do all day, he finds himself enlisted by his overworked son to represent the family when his wayward grandson Xiaosong gets into trouble at school. This particular time, it’s apparently because he’s been bothering a female student by taking photos of her with a professional DSLR camera (the teacher later gives Dachuan an envelope to pass to his son and daughter-in-law which turns out to contain a love letter Xiaosong attempted to pass to the object of his affection). Slightly annoyed to be seeing Dachuan again instead of the boy’s parents, the teacher makes herself clear that the cause of Xiaosong’s poor behaviour and declining grades is most likely a lack of parental attention. Chastened, the parents discuss finding a cram school but nothing is really done about his problematic approach to romance, especially as they each need to return to work soon after dinner leaving grandpa sitting alone at the table. 

Perhaps strangely, Xiaosong seems to have forgotten that his grandpa even has a name, hanging up on a caller thinking they’ve got the wrong number only to realise they wanted grandpa and redial upon which Dachuan discovers that his greatest wartime friend has passed away in Beijing and the funeral is in a few days’ time. Though Xiaosong had technically been “grounded” for the summer, the idea was that grandpa was supposed to supervise him while he stayed home and studied. So begins their awkward road trip, passing first through the home of Dachuan’s daughter Ling (Dai Lele) in a town closer to the capital and a lengthy train ride away before pressing on to the city. 

As his opening voiceover explains, Xiaosong never really understood his grandfather thinking of him as a grumpy, stubborn old man stuck in the past. Yet as grandpa later sadly laments reflecting on his friend’s final days, people talk about the past a lot when they’re unhappy in the present. Everyone is always keen to pay respect to Dachuan and his wartime generation, though not all of them have good intentions such as the overfriendly young man they meet on the train who enthusiastically listens to his stories, or the older woman (He Zaifei) who reminds Dachuan of his late wife but leverages his desire to show off by getting him to pay for an expensive lunch. For his part, Dachuan resents his declining capacity and finds himself at odds with the modern world, unable to access technology or understand the changing nature of society. His quest to get to Beijing under his own steam is a way of rebelling against his age, proving he’s still capable and independent though his slightly narcissistic can-do attitude often backfires, his offer to fix a broken-down bus exposing his lack of acumen while his petulant decision to leave finds him stubbornly insisting on walking the remaining 30km to the capital. 

Highlighting the corporate obsession, meanwhile, another stranded bus passenger makes constant phone calls to his less than understanding boss to explain the delay. While Dachuan and his grandson experience set backs on the road, the boy’s father Jianguo (Tu Songyan) chases a reluctant client who won’t sign a contract and returns late to a dark and empty home while his wife (Yang Tongshu) works the nightshift as a surgeon at the hospital. Unbeknownst to Dachuan, Ling and her husband (Gong Zheng) are about to split up apparently because he spent too much time at work and the relationship has fallen apart as a result. Young Xiaosong says he wants to be a photographer to “document all the beautiful things and moments” lamenting that they never took a family photo with his late grandmother. In the absence of his father and son and forced to humiliate himself repeatedly at work, Jianguo comes to regret having deprioritised his family life and recommits himself to repairing their fractured bonds perhaps with a family holiday lamenting that they never got round to it while his mother was alive. The Olympics Opening Ceremony becomes, its own way, a second New Year with the TV broadcast taking the place of the Spring Gala as the family finally come back together again having gained new understandings of themselves and others through their various summer adventures. Society might have changed, those exciting KFC “family buckets” from the city apparently not going quite as far as you’d think, but the family can apparently still be saved with a little mutual understanding and a dose of self-reflection.


A Summer Trip screened as part of the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (Japanese subtitles only)

Green Jail (綠色牢籠, Huang Yin-Yu, 2021)

The legacy of Japanese imperialism continues to haunt a small Okinawan island once home to a sprawling network of coal mines but now mostly to ghosts of its troubled past at least according to Huang Yin-Yu’s beautifully lensed, elegiac documentary Green Jail (綠色牢籠, Lǜsè Láolóng). So named for its thick forests of mangrove trees, the island’s Iriomote Coal Mine ceased production in 1960 but from the late 19th century to the fall of the Japanese Empire at the end of the war, lured workers from not only from the Japanese mainland but from Korea, China, and Taiwan with false promises of tropical climes and plentiful fruits failing to disclose the harsh and exploitative working conditions they would later prove unable to escape. 

Possibly the last witness to these times, grandma Yoshiko Hashima (her name naturalised from the original Yang) travelled to the island with her adopted father, Yang Tien-fu who worked for the mines and was responsible for recruiting other workers, at the age of 10 leaving briefly after the war but soon returning. The last of the Taiwanese settlers, she recalls little regarding the running of the mines save witnessing frequent beatings by Japanese soldiers but does recall the discrimination she faced as a foreign worker from the local community who by far made up the smallest percentage of those employed at the mines finding herself with few friends as locals often even declined to eat their food or accept their hospitality. 

Yet in a strange way history perhaps repeats itself. Now elderly and alone, her children all having left the island returning only infrequently, she rents out her spare room for extra money to an American traveller, who, like her, came to Japan as a teenager. Though Luis tells us that he hadn’t intended to stay long on the island but likes being able to help Yoshiko who is elderly and alone, she tells us that she regrets her decision to rent to him which she claims she made in the belief he had a wife. She describes him as “‘messy”, claims he has lice, and that his slovenliness has attracted an influx of ants while the pet dog that he keeps on a leash outside disturbs her with its constant whining. Later we see him again having returned to Kansai revealing that he felt that people disliked him and found it difficult to fit in, but that his time in Okinawa has perhaps brought him clarity in the further direction of his life. 

Luis was at least able to leave the island at a time of his own choosing, but as the ghostly voice of Yoshiko’s late father reminds us those who worked in the mines were not so lucky. He tells us that he once slept on a pile of bones and the remains of workers who attempted to flee but ended up starving to death in the jungle were a frequent sight in local caves. Exploited and manipulated, workers were often hopped up on morphine, for which they had to pay, in order to up their productivity but also to make them dependent on their employment to avoid withdrawal aware that they would be unable to obtain a such substances in their home country. They also found themselves borrowing on their wages, especially if they contracted malaria and were unable to work, leaving them essentially indentured and therefore unable to leave without satisfying their debts. Yoshiko tells us that few wanted to come to “Dead Man’s Island” yet Tien-fu declares himself uncertain why some miners remained unhappy with the arrangement eventually needing to organise a specialised police force to enforce discipline complaining that workers who were in debt and therefore earning almost nothing often shirked and only worked when the police were around. 

Travelling around the otherwise idyllic landscape with its verdant green forests and peaceful rivers, Huang finds occasional ghosts of the departed miners hovering on the horizon dressed only in their white fundoshi underwear, slipping into brief scenes of reconstruction set amid the now ruined structures of the industrial mining complex. The last survivor, Yoshiko hangs on alone yet perhaps not quite reflecting on the implications of her father’s role in the development of the mines or particularly of their legacy. Her own life has evidently been hard, adopted as an infant and then married to her “brother” only to see her children desert her left behind alone in the Green Jail a guardian of a dark history few wish to remember. Juxtaposing the island’s traumatic past with the beauty of its verdant scenery Huang’s elegantly composed documentary poses some serious questions about the imperial legacy but always mindful of its wandering ghosts. 


Green Jail screened as part of the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (Japanese subtitles only)

The festival will also be screening Huang Yin-Yu’s accompanying short film Green Grass, Pale Fire: an elliptical, ethereal dramatisation of three men’s attempt to escape the mines only to find themselves trapped by the beautiful yet maddening landscape.

Images: (c) Moolin Films, Ltd./ Moolin Production, Co., Ltd.

Back to the Wharf (风平浪静, Li Xiaofeng, 2020)

“How dare you want to live when your existence is pointless” a father admonishes his blameless son, deflecting his own willing complicity in the persistent decline of the modern China. Repeatedly abandoned and betrayed firstly by his society, then by his friend, and finally by his father, the hero of Li Xiaofeng’s moody neo-noir Back to the Wharf (风平浪静, Fēngpínglàngjìng) first chooses self-exile only to eventually return and wonder if his crime has been forgotten allowing him to live again before discovering that nothing really changes, there is no escape from the whims of the rich and powerful in an increasingly feudal society. 

Quiet and studious, Song Hao (at 17: Zhou Zhengjie / at 32: Zhang Yu) first wakes up to life’s unfairness in 1992 when he’s called into school on a holiday by his headmaster who breaks the news that he’s losing his guaranteed university place supposedly because his grades are good enough to get there on his own and others need it more. “I like to prioritise the collective over the individual” he explains, reminding him that an extra person from the school going to a top uni can only be a good thing though it’s obviously a blow to Hao not to mention his ambitious father Jianfei (Wang Yanhui) who immediately rings up to complain and discovers that the place is going not to a needy student but Hao’s best friend Li Tang (Lee Hong-chi), son of the local mayor. Angry and confused, father and son set off on circular journeys to confront their respective counterparts, but there’s a storm raging and Hao accidentally wanders into the wrong house after noticing the door flapping in the wind. After walking past a baby sleeping upstairs he runs into an old man who mistakes him for someone else and soon lashes out, shoving fruit into his mouth and trying to suffocate him at which point Hao picks up a knife and stabs his attacker in the belly. Taking flight in terror Hao believes he has just killed a man and orphaned a little girl, never knowing that his father arrived a few minutes later and finished the old man off to stop him talking or that Li Tang was watching the whole thing from a window in the opposite building. 

Returning 15 years later for his mother’s funeral, it’s Li Tang who is most pleased to see Hao when he runs into him by chance at the ruins of the scene of his crime now a future development site for the young real estate tycoon, that is if the now young woman (Den Enxi) the orphaned baby has become whom Hao had been following out of guilt-ridden curiosity would agree to vacate her family property. While Hao has been languishing as a lonely construction worker, Tang has prospered off the back of the 90s economic boom largely thanks to an entrenched network of local corruption that runs from his father the mayor through Hao’s father Jianfei who was handed a fat promotion presumably to placate him over the uni places scandal. Tang has, in a sense, stolen his future leaving him quite literally displaced wandering in the ruined landscape of a haunted past while his father, he discovers, had divorced his mother and remarried in order to have another son. “Your upbringing was a failure” he cooly explains, he needed another male heir to salvage the family reputation and restore his name. Jianfei has, however, done pretty well out of the arrangement now a wealthy man with a separate apartment Hao is not welcome to visit but planning to send his wife and child abroad and retire to Australia. 

Intending to leave as soon as possible, Hao nevertheless starts to wonder if it hasn’t blown over and he might in a sense be allowed to seek happiness, bamboozled into a romance with an old school friend (Song Jia) apparently carrying a torch for him all this time. The past, however, will not let him go. The corruption runs deeper than he even suspected as does Li Tang’s insecure greed and duplicity, attempting to force friendship through blackmail. An embodiment of post-70s fuerdai Li Tang is an amoral capitalist willing to do anything it takes in pursuit of wealth, but at heart a coward ashamed that he owes everything to his father’s machinations and perhaps projecting all of his resentment onto his old friend Hao whose future he so casually stole.   

Yet the message seems clear, men like Hao will always be at the mercy of men like Tang. Perhaps this is the bargain his father has made, but it’s one that Hao can no longer tolerate once Tang forces him to destroy the roots of his redemption. The only sane response to the madness of the modern China, he seems to say, is to go mad in one way or another. Even so, this being a Mainland movie, the nihilistic fatalism of the inevitable conclusion is somewhat undermined by the brief coda in which a policeman reassures a young woman that the crime has been investigated and the wrongdoers punished while the now familiar title card explains to us who went to prison and for how long for their many and various moral transgressions. Hao’s existence is rendered “pointless” because he is unable to live by the rules of a corrupt society, yet his self-destructive act of rebellion does perhaps bring about change if only in the names involved. Beautifully shot with brief flashes of expressionism amid the rain drenched streets of a decaying city to the melancholy strains of a noirish jazz score, Li’s fatalistic takedown of the inequalities of the post-90s society is an exercise in style but one which lets few off the hook as its nihilistic conclusion stabs right at the heart of patriarchal corruption. 


Back to the Wharf streamed as part of the Glasgow Film Festival.

Original trailer (simplified Chinese subtitles only)

Lotus Lantern (宝莲灯, Chang Guangxi, 1999)

“I only want to have a normal life” a wronged woman complains on discovering that it’s almost impossible to escape the tyranny of the celestial realm and most particularly if you are a goddess. Released in 1999, Lotus Lantern (宝莲灯, Băo Lián Dēng) apparently took over four years to produce requiring 150,000 animation cells and 2000 painted backgrounds, and like much of the Shanghai Animation Film Studio’s output is inspired by a well-known folktale celebrating filial love and in fact featuring the Monkey King himself in a small role. Unlike the studio’s earlier work however and despite its roots in Chinese folklore, Lotus Lantern perhaps owes much more to Disney’s ‘90s renaissance than it does to the nation’s animation history. 

Animated in a classic 4:3, the tale opens with a voiceover as a scarf elegantly falls to Earth and into the arms of a young man. Defying her brother Yang Jian’s (Jiang Wen) wishes, the goddess Sanshengmu (Xu Fan) has chosen to leave the realm of the immortals to be with the man she loves taking the famed Lotus Lantern with her in an attempt to evade his control. He however finds her and attacks the pair with his eye lasers. Sanshengmu’s lover is killed but she gives birth to a son, Chenxiang (at 7: Yu Pengfei / at 14: Yang Shuo), and lives happily with him in the mortal realm for seven years until the flame in the Lotus Lantern is extinguished allowing Yang Jian to track her down and kidnap Chenxiang to force her to return. She tries to bargain with her brother but as she later puts it Heaven Temple lacks compassion and so he imprisons her underneath a mountain and tells Chenxiang his mother is dead. Chenxiang does not believe him and is determined to get the Lotus Lantern back, especially after a cryptic visit from the God of Land hints the same fate as befell the Monkey King, who has since become a Buddha, may have befallen his mother. 

First and foremost a tale of filial love and devotion, Lotus Lantern is also another subversively anti-authoritarian rebuke against heartless celestial tyranny. We learn than Sanshengmu’s mother also loved a mortal, yet her brother refuses to forgive her for this apparent transgression against the law of heaven, burying her under a mountain while vowing to raise her son as his own in accordance with filial piety. Meanwhile, he’s also quietly terrorising a community of non-Han Chinese trying to force them to carve a colossal statue of him by kidnapping the chief’s daughter Ga Mei (Ning Jing) and keeping her in Heaven Temple as a maid. Yet Yang Jian isn’t the only problem. The God of Land tells Chenxiang to seek out the Monkey King (Chen Peisi) for advice on busting out of a mountain, but now that he’s become a Buddha Sun Wukong has no interest in helping. Indifferent to all things, he believes suffering is a path to enlightenment and sees no reason to help Chenxiang alleviate his by showing him how to rescue his mother. 

Then again, the mortal world’s not much better. The first person Chenxiang meets on his quest turns out to be a dodgy priest who claims he knows where to find the Monkey King and can even help Chenxiang with his training but predictably ends up kidnapping his pet monkey and exploiting it as part of a fairground act even members of the crowd complain is cruel and distasteful. Nevertheless, after reuniting with his monkey buddy Chenxiang trudges on looking for a way to release his mother from under the mountain, finally moving the Monkey King by needling him about his own sense of maternal abandonment in his apparently parentless genesis. In this unsteady world, it seems to say, the only true thing is a boy’s love for his mother though a conflict perhaps arises after another seven year jump reunites Chenxiang with Ga Mei who has been returned to her tribe and probably should be his love interest if he were not currently fixated on his filiality. 

Yet as the disembodied voice of his mother reminds him, only by embracing true love which is what Heaven Temple lacks can Chenxiang finally defeat it. Borrowing heavily from Western animation and particularly from classic Disney, Lotus Lantern may in some senses seem old fashioned even for 1999 in its still frame pans and unconvincing effects, but perhaps reflects a desire to take Hollywood on at its own game as the studio found itself needing to commercialise its output especially in its series of musical montages featuring a contemporary pop songs performed by top Mandopop stars while the faces of the A-list voice acting cast are also showcased during the end credits. The approach apparently paid off, Lotus Lantern proved a huge domestic hit and is credited with reinvigorating the Chinese animation industry which had gone into decline in the market-orientated ‘90s. Complete with adorable monkey sidekick there’s certainly no doubting its mass appeal in its warmhearted, family-friendly take on filial devotion.


Lotus Lantern is currently available to stream in the UK as part of the Chinese Cinema Season.