Inland Sea (港町, Kazuhiro Soda, 2018)

Inland sea posterJapan’s ageing population continues to provoke shifts in the social fabric, not least in small rural towns where the elderly now dominate and have been largely left to fend for themselves as if time had simply left them behind. Following his previous documentary Oyster Factory, documentarian Kazuhiro Soda returns to small town coastal Japan with Inland Sea (港町, Minatomachi). Focussing on the village of Ushimado, he observes those still clinging on to an archaic way of life despite advanced age and increasing hardship.

The first of Soda’s primary subjects, Waichiro, is now 86 years old and hard of hearing yet he still takes his boat out every day to fish in the hope of returning home with a prime catch. His living is, as he explains, precarious given that his equipment is now expensive while the price of fish has severely declined. A later meeting with fishmonger Koso makes plain that not every catch is equal – live(ly) fish fetch the most money, while dead ones bring in in only half and like everything else the price of fish is also dependent on demand.

Koso refuses to tell us her “real” age outside of amusingly describing herself as a “late stage elderly” which sounds like something she probably read on a well meaning but somewhat patronising government leaflet. In any case, she is a sprightly, energetic woman who seems far younger than her years and is something of a neighbourhood hub as she makes her rounds delivering fresh seafood to the mostly elderly residents who eagerly await the next tasty catch.

Most of the other residents are, however, more like Waichiro in advanced old age and mostly left to their own devices now that their children have left for the cities never to return. Kumiko, an 84-year-old widow who still works by the waterside preparing fish is just one such woman with a heartbreaking post-war story she later relates in a typically matter of fact fashion. Becoming a kind of guide for Soda and his producer as they explore the small village, Kumiko often attempts to steal the spotlight – bad mouthing her neighbours live on camera while they stand right behind her as in the case of her apparent bestie whom, she insensitively tells us, has “no friends” and a poor relationship with her family despite having eight children which most of the other lonely older people might consider as something of a luxury.

Relating her sad life story in which she laments a feeling of disconnection from the place in which she lives owing to having lost her family in the war and been adopted at age four by a fisherman and his wife who denied her an education (as was the thinking in those days), Kumiko lays bare a melancholy underside of the post-war boom which seems to have left towns like these (the ones that survived at all) almost untouched as if frozen in time. The world has pulled away, leaving Ushimado behind like a rock pool filled with water long after the tide has gone out.

Soda’s decision to regrade the film in black and white after shooting in colour adds a poignant touch to his casting of Ushimado as a place somewhat out of time. Wandering around, Kumiko begins to point out empty houses, mostly belonging to the recently deceased, which make up the bulk of the town and it’s true that the vast majority of the people we meet are older save perhaps for a younger woman helping at a cafe and a middle-aged one who takes care to feed the many stray cats who are the area’s other main residents with leftover fish offal. There is, however, perhaps fresh hope for towns like Ushimado as evidenced by the mild surprise expressed in discovering the range of dishes on offer at the local coffee shop seeing as technological advances and better transport links may help to draw some of those who left for the city back to the country even if not to fishing. At the very last, colour returns to the screen reminding us that there is life in this place still and that its stillness should not be mistaken for transience.


Streaming almost globally via Mubi until 1st April 2019.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Spring Fever (春風沉醉的夜晚, Lou Ye, 2009)

Spring fever posterLou Ye has never especially cared for the views of China’s famously draconian censorship board. 2006’s Summer Palace earned him a five year ban for its scenes of full frontal nudity and references to Tiananmen Square Massacre (or, as later claimed, for “failing to meet appropriate standards for sound and picture quality”). 2009’s Spring Fever (春風沉醉的夜晚, Chūnfēng Chénzuì de Yèwǎn) was therefore shot on the fly in Nanjing in direct contravention of the director’s loss of official status – something he later got around by listing the film as a Hong Kong/France co-production so it could be entered in the Cannes Film Festival in a move which can’t have done him any favours with SARFT. Once you’ve been banned, you might as well go all in and there can be few better ways of reminding China’s “conservative” censors that you didn’t ask for their opinion than opening with a lengthy and extremely matter of fact love scene between two men.

Lou opens with floating spring flowers giving way to two men in a car whose hands delicately brush as they approach their destination – a remote cottage in which they intend to have a secret tryst. The tryst, however, will not be so secret as they assume. Private investigator Luo Haitao (Chen Sicheng) has been tailing the men on the behest of a suspicious wife, Lin Xue (Jiang Jiaqi), who suspects her husband, Wang Ping (Wu Wei), is hiding a secret but never guessed it was another man, Jiang Cheng (Qin Hao). Luo dutifully reports his findings to Lin, but urges her not to look too closely at the photographs. Finally he points out her husband’s lover at his workplace, a travel agents with a conveniently large glass frontage. Wang Ping, in a motif that will be repeated, wants to introduce his wife to his lover, perhaps hoping to ease the blow or smooth a path towards maintaining both relationships simultaneously. Seeing as Lin Xue has already seen Jiang and knows perfectly well who he is, the plan goes wrong and provokes a confrontation which eventually sends Lin Xue storming into Jiang’s workplace to out him in front of his colleagues, at which point Jiang decides he’s had enough and breaks up with Wang. Wang, however, can’t seem to get over him.

Meanwhile, Luo has continued following Jiang even though the investigation is over. Through extended trips to drag bars and underground music venues, Luo eventually becomes involved with “the other man” but he too has a girlfriend, Li Jing (Tan Zhuo), who works in a factory and seems to have something going on with her shady, Cantonese-speaking boss.

Abandoning the overt political contexts of his previous films, Lou circles around two concentric love triangles each of which has Jiang Cheng in the centre. Though it’s unclear whether Jiang Cheng is living as an “openly” gay man – the reaction at his workplace to Lin Xue’s outburst would suggest not though it doesn’t seem to cause him any problems with his employment, he is the only one of the three men to exclusively embrace his homosexuality. He does not have a girlfriend, is well known as an artist at a local drag bar, and makes no real effort to hide who he is even if not making a particular point of it. Both Wang and Luo seem to struggle with the nature of their feelings for and relationship with Jiang, neither one quite able to give up on the idea of “conventional” life. Wang, apparently infatuated with Jiang and unable to live without him, still seems to want to remain within his marriage despite his wife’s increasingly possessive behaviour, dreaming of an arrangement where he could perhaps have the best of both worlds. Luo is less conflicted. He pursues Jiang while his relationship with Li Jing flounders, but feels himself responsible for her wellbeing and unable to abandon her entirely in the knowledge that she is in a fragile state.

Quickly fed up with all these girlfriend problems, Jiang never asks either man to make a choice even if he eventually feels there is no way either relationship can continue. As Jiang’s story, the women perhaps get short shrift with Lin Xue’s villainy eventually turning violent as she becomes the embodiment of a repressive society intolerant of homosexual relationships, berating Jiang for corrupting her husband, humiliating her, and ruining her marriage all in front of his gawping colleagues in an act intended to destroy his life completely. Li Jing, meanwhile, has a much more sympathetic reaction to discovering the true nature of the relationship between the two men, allowing the three to continue as a trio until she eventually decides she is probably a third wheel and needs to get on with her own life. Nevertheless, the three options available to our heroes appear to be suicide, violence, and melancholy. Jiang, remembering the painful poetry of Yu Dafu read to him by the now long absent Wang, laments that he has perhaps “missed the love” that was his “destiny” like a flower blooming in the wrong season.

Despite being among Lou’s most straightforward narratives, Spring Fever lacks the cohesion of the fractured Purple Butterfly and allows its minor political contexts to melt into a background of generalised melancholia as if in echo of a generation’s apathy and confusion, caught on the cusp of change but unable to decide on a direction. Jiang’s sadness endures as a romanticised notion of impossible loves, but floats away on a spring breeze, devoid of hope or purpose.


Available to stream on Mubi UK until 24th September 2018.

US trailer (English subtitles)

Purple Butterfly (紫蝴蝶, Lou Ye, 2003)

Purple Butterfly posterChinese films about the resistance movement towards the Japanese occupation tend to veer towards the hagiographic. The business of resistance may be complex, may require unfortunate moral compromises, and may in fact prove ruinous but it is always righteous. Lou Ye’s Purple Butterfly (紫蝴蝶, Zǐ Húdié) wants to tell a different, sadder story. Set between 1928 and 1937, Purple Butterfly pits love and oppression against each other and asks whether feeling is a worthy causality of war or if compassion is merely a weakness which must be eradicated in the quest for political freedom.

In Manchuria in 1928, Ding Hui (Zhang Ziyi) is having an affair with a Japanese man raised in China who is also a childhood friend. Itami (Toru Nakamura) is being called back to Japan and has asked Ding Hui to go with him. As if trapped within a melancholy film noir, she goes to the station but does not board the train. When she comes home, she witnesses her brother, the editor of an underground resistance newspaper, being assassinated by a Japanese nationalist. Ding Hui joins the cause.

Flashforward to 1931 and Ding Hui makes her second trip to the station as part of an operation to pass important papers to an operative. However, the operation goes as wrong as it could possibly go. Szeto (Liu Ye) – an ordinary passenger, picks up the assassin’s jacket by mistake and is passed the briefcase. When he tries to give it back, the operative panics and starts shooting, assuming they have been betrayed. Many innocent people are killed, including Szeto’s fiancée Yiling (Li Bingbing) who had made the perilous journey to the station to meet him despite the ongoing unrest gripping the city.

Train stations become a point of transition, of loss and compromise in more ways than one and especially for Ding Hui who feels herself fracturing, anxious to the point of breakdown and wondering what exactly it is they’re fighting for. As coincidence would have it, also on the train is Itami – returned from Japan and now an intelligence officer tasked with rooting out the “Purple Butterfly” resistance cell of which Ding Hui is a prominent member. It is decided that Ding Hui must rekindle her romance with Itami in order to have an eye in the intelligence department and engineer access to assassinating the top officer, Yamamoto (Kin Ei).

Lou deliberately fragments his narrative, allowing the shockwaves from the central train station sequence to radiate outward as the three protagonists dance around each other willingly or otherwise. Dance is, indeed, the primary metaphor as he digresses from the central narrative to give us Szeto’s backstory in his dreamy, innocent romance with Yiling which is destined to end in tragedy. The pair dance to Shanghai jazz, giddy, as if the world itself has receded from them and they exist only within this present and this space. Later Szeto puts the same record on again as he contemplates suicide, longing to be back inside that moment. As we had two train stations we also have two dances but our second is danced to a Japanese tune as Ding Hui and Itami attend a party, each sorrowful, each dreading what must come next but also perhaps mildly hopeful that it will finally be over and perhaps they can both catch that train out of Shanghai after all.

War defeats them all. Szeto’s life is ruined, as are the lives of many, by resistance panic at a busy train station. His pain and his rage and the impotence of his times threaten to push him over the edge, consumed by hatred for both sides who have each taken from him the only things which ever mattered. Ding Hui sacrificed her love for patriotism, Itami sacrificed patriotism for love, they win and lose in equal measure cementing only the inevitable sense of impossibility which continues to define Shanghai in the 1930s. Lou paints their destinies like film noir, fatalistic and romantic yet human and painful. Feeling is powerless in the face of historical circumstance, or so Lou seems to say as he closes out with a selection of stock footage depicting the fall of Shanghai and the Nanjing Massacre. What are we fighting for? Ding Hui asks, but it’s a question with no answer when all around is chaos.


Purple Butterfly is available to stream on Mubi UK until 3rd September 2018.

 Original trailer (dialogue free, English captions)

Have a Nice Day (大世界 / 好极了, Liu Jian, 2017)

Have a Nice Day poster 1Even when everything is pointless, still you have to try to live. “Spring is spring”, as the opening quote by Leo Tolstoy proclaims and so there is life even among the ruins which, in this case, exist in the mysterious “development zone” somewhere in the modern China. This backstreet noir takes place in a world of near apocalyptic dilapidation though the effect is more one of incompleteness than destruction, as if an over excited city planner had randomly started projects one after another but suddenly tired of each of them. Jack Ma may have affirmed that everyone has a dream in his heart, but the dreams here are small and mostly unattainable, locked into a claustrophobic atmosphere of inescapable despair.

Xiao Zhang (Zhu Changlong), a lowly construction driver, decides to seize his chance of happiness with both hands in lifting a vast sum of cash which belongs to mob boss Uncle Liu (Yang Siming). Uncle Liu, however, is busy torturing his childhood friend for supposedly sleeping with his wife. He sends his best guy, enigmatic hitman Skinny (Ma Xiaofeng), after Zhang but before Skinny can get to him, Xiao Zhang is is picked up by “inventor” Yellow Eyes (Cao Kou) whose X-ray specs have spotted the money and decided it’s too good an opportunity to miss. He takes off with his kind-of-girlfriend (Zheng Yi) who is also the sister-in-law of a guy who works with petty gangster Lao Zhao (Cao Kai) who is the guy Xiao Zhang took the money from in the first place. Meanwhile, the mother of Xiao Zhang’s girlfriend has asked her niece, Ann Ann (Zhu Hong), to have a look into what’s going on with Xiao Zhang because he’s been sending some very suspicious messages.

Everything here is in transit. Hitman Skinny is fond of telling people that he’s “just passing through” but so is everyone else, there is nothing here to stop for, except that it’s impossible to escape. All the significant places are also points of transit or hope for connection – the “Integrity” internet cafe, a “business” hotel, a road which leads nowhere through a landscape permanently “under construction”. Everything is half formed or falling down, the world is indistinct as if it hasn’t discovered its own identity and has tried to cobble something together from the back streets of other cities glanced in violent movies from somewhere far away.

Xiao Zhang, (almost) our hero, is almost the same – he tells Skinny that his dream was to be a man like him rather than the spineless coward he feels himself to be because guys like him always seem so cool in the movies. Doubtless Skinny doesn’t seem so “cool” with his foot on Xiao Zhang’s chest, but Xiao Zhang’s need is as much about escape as it is a matter of practicality. Though the practicality is ironic enough – he wants the money to pay for more plastic surgery for his fiancée whose face has apparently been ruined by a botched operation. Xiao Zhang hopes they can escape to South Korea, world capital of cosmetic procedures, where they can repair what the modern China has destroyed.

It isn’t difficult to see why Have a Nice Day (大世界, Dàshìjiè, previously titled 好极了, Hǎojíle) rubbed the censors the wrong way. Liu’s vision of the China of today is a lawless wasteland in which despair and inertia reign while those of the post ‘80s generation flail wildly in the wind, drinking in overseas culture from Hong Kong and the West and wanting more than their society can give them. In a running joke everyone has a startup idea they’re sure will be the next big thing but when it comes right down to it, even with the money they’ve no idea what they’re doing. Two boys chatting idly about the future find only futility with one lamenting that if he wanted to make it he’d have gone to England to study, only for the other to ask what the point would be now the UK has left Europe. He has a radical startup idea of his own – a restaurant! After all, people will always need to eat. You have to admire his practicality, even if bemoaning his lack of imagination.

Meanwhile, the cousin of Xiao Zhang’s fiancée and her boyfriend, having figured out that Xiao Zhang really does have the money and intending to take it from him, fantasise about finding their own “Shangri-La”. Breaking into a lengthy karaoke-style video sequence, Liu paints a jagged picture of Ann Ann’s visual ideology which quickly descends into a mish-mash of Mao-era socialist propaganda posters and their collections of cheerful country women enthusiastically driving tractors and juggling sheep while posing in traditional Chinese dress with children in neckerchiefs reading improving literature. Everything is for sale, even apparently the innocence of the past. A friend of Lao Zhao’s expounding on the nature of freedom describes it as a three tiered system – the farmer’s market, supermarket, and online, your degree of personal autonomy and happiness reduced to a question of how the place you buy your groceries informs your sense of self worth.

Rampant capitalism has led to moral as well as physical decay as the half-finished buildings collapse under the weight of national hubris, a weathered statue standing in for a real life policeman as the hollow representation of the authority of an absent regime. Animated with an oddly naturalistic minimalism and filled with whimsical absurdity, Have a Nice Day serves as a condemnation of the last 30 years of Chinese history but it does so with a wistful irony. After all, it’s not as if things are much better anywhere else.


Have a Nice Day is released in UK Cinemas on 23rd March courtesy of Mubi. Check the official website to find out where it’s screening near you.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Postcards from the Zoo (Kebun Binatang, Edwin, 2012)

postcards from the zoo posterThe thing about zoos is, how can you be sure which side of the bars you’re really on? The heroine of Edwin’s whimsical adventure, Postcards From the Zoo (Kebun Binatang), finds herself at home among the animals after being abandoned by her human father with the consequence that, to her, the outside world is the inverted mirror of her theme park home. Themes of exploitation, exoticisation, innocence and experience run side by side but then perhaps Edwin has tried to pack too much into his day out lending a degree of incoherence to his meandering itinerary.

As a young child, Lana (Ladya Cheryl) is abandoned in the zoo by her father. All alone, trapped in the park overnight, she wanders around exploring and calling out for her dad to come and get her. He doesn’t, years pass and suddenly Lana is a beautiful young woman, still living in the zoo after having been taken in by a giraffe handler, Oom Dave. Her life changes when a new authority takes over and immediately sets about trying to evict the collection of people who’ve made the zoo their home without the proper permission. Taking off with a handsome magician (Nicholas Saputra), Lana begins to explore the world outside but quickly finds that there are invisible bars everywhere.

Edwin ties Lana to the figure of the zoo’s solitary giraffe – a herd animal forced to live alone in Jakarta’s zoo as the sole representative of its kind. Certifiably nuts about giraffes, Lana rolls off various animal facts and expresses the long held desire the touch the giraffe’s stomach. Her status is confused; she’s both visitor and exhibit, caretaker and resident. The zoo is all Lana has ever known or wanted to know, and so when she must leave it, she does so with curious eyes, examining the regular world like a traveller on a journey to untold lands.

Becoming the magician’s assistant – a Tiger Lily to his cowboy, Lana travels the city as a co-conspirator in his life of hustling. Their odyssey brings them into the seedy underbelly of the modern capital with its heartless gangsters and oppressed women. Once again abandoned, Lana finds herself sinking into this world as one of many generic young women dressed in white, given a number (33), and placed behind glass waiting to be called forth by male visitors. Now literally an exhibit in a human zoo, Lana finds that things on this side of the enclosure are no different. While her customer asks her to dress up in a “tiger” suit (it’s a leopard, she quickly corrects him), a family with young children pose with a “tamed” python at the zoo. The twin pictures of exploitation neatly ram Edwin’s point home even if he allows Lana’s experiences to remain in the realms of whimsy, only hinting at the darkness of the “massage” industry in an early humiliating scene in which a naked, frightened woman is awkwardly sat with a grinning gangster as a kind of living trophy.

Broken with a series of title cards explaining zoo-related terminology each of which relate to the latest stages of Lana’s journey – “ex-situ conservation”, “reintroduction”, etc, Postcards from the Zoo maintains a kind of distanced affectation which undermines the whimsy of its magical realist stance. Lana’s journey is one of youthful exploration in which the adolescent must venture away from home in order to become adult and return home with wiser eyes but Lana’s quest, with her series of abandonments and mysteries, may perhaps never be finished. Edwin finds the whimsy of the zoo with its dinosaur shaped carts and strangely designed cowbus mimicked in the outside world with monkeys wearing doll masks and wandering magicians selling snake oil claiming to provide “instant youth” and cure roundworm, fungus, and stab wounds,  returning him to the “all the world’s a zoo” ethos which seems to pervade but even if he fails to bring his tale full circle he does at least allow a kind of harmony in the reunion of his twin symbols of the solitary, imprisoned giraffe and the curious little girl.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Antiporno (アンチポルノ, Sion Sono, 2016)

Antiporno posterIf freedom exists in Japanese cinema, it exists only through sexual liberation. Only in this most private of acts can true individual will be expressed. Sion Sono, ever the contrarian, wants to ask if that very idea of “freedom” is in itself oppressive and he’s chosen to do that through his contribution to the Roman Porno Reboot Project in which five contemporary directors attempt to recreate Nikkatsu’s line in ‘70s soft-core pornography.

Opening in a room of bold primary colours – the sunlit walls of the yellow bedchamber and the garish red of the doorless bathroom, Sono homes in on the figure of Kyoko (Ami Tomite) who lies face down on a bed with her underwear around her ankles. She seems somehow broken and exhausted, staring into a piece of glass from a shattered mirror and making ominous statements to herself. Suddenly her mood changes, no longer the maudlin woman she transforms into the cute and quirky high schooler so beloved of certain genres of Japanese entertainment. When her assistant arrives, Kyoko delights in humiliating her, forcing Noriko (Mariko Tsutsui) to crawl around on all fours wearing a dog collar and then ordering her to allow herself to be raped by an (all female) team of newspaper reporters.

So far, so Petra von Kant, but Sono doesn’t stop here. He shows us that this brightly coloured room is a stand-in for Kyoko’s fracturing psyche, a failed attempt to order her chaotic world. Someone shouts “cut” and we’re on a film set – roles are reversed, Kyoko is no longer in control. Her memories enter free fall as she flits between an awkward (possibly imagined) childhood, and her present predicament as, alternately, plaything and dominatrix.

The roots of Kyoko’s confusion stem back to the contradiction in her parents’, or really her society’s, attitude to sex. During a very strange family dinner, Kyoko and her younger sister have a frank discussion with mum and dad about male and female genitals and how they fit together. The language is pointed, but Kyoko’s father has very clear ideas about what is obscene and what isn’t – “Cocks” are what men stick into prostitutes and they’re obscene, but he has no sensible answer when pressed on how exactly “cocks” and “male genitalia” can be all that different. Her parents tell her sex is indecent and shameful while continuing to talk about their own sex life openly and refusing to shield their daughters from their obvious appetites. They offer no answer for this continuing paradox, only the affirmation that Kyoko’s desires are “indecent” and must be rejected.

Kyoko’s sister finds her freedom in another way, but Kyoko pursues hers through sexuality, looking for a connection in midst of true liberation. She wants to become a “whore” which the adult version of herself describes as “a woman so pure it breaks her own heart”, but what she’s looking for is the freedom which eludes her in her day to day living. Kyoko and later Noriko repeat the mantra that they will dismantle the “annoying freedoms which restrict me”,  lamenting that there is no freedom of speech in a country like Japan and that no woman has ever been able to attain their own freedom in a world entirely controlled by men. A protest against the renewal of the ANPO security treaty runs on the TV while Kyoko’s sister holds up a book of butterflies, exclaiming that all the free things fly away. The women of Japan, according to Noriko, praise free speech but reject their own freedom, forced to chase false liberations and endlessly allowing themselves to be manipulated by a culture they themselves willingly create.

The fly away butterflies hit the ceiling, and Kyoko’s captive lizard cannot escape its bottle. Sono seems to suggest that there is no true freedom, that the very idea of “true freedom” as mediated through the idea of sexual liberation is itself another fallacy used to manipulate women into doing what men want. Kyoko ends up in a “Roman Porno” to empower herself, but is disempowered by it – rendered an anonymous object trapped inside an entirely different kind of tube. Blinded by colours and memory she searches for an escape but finds none, groping for the mechanism to set herself free from the delusion of liberation but grasping only empty air.


Antiporno is available to stream in the UK via Mubi until 8th January and will be released on blu-ray by Third Window Films in April 2018.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

White Ant (白蟻─慾望謎網, Chu Hsien-che, 2016)

白蟻_poster_D_0105_final_更新tenga_cs5White Ant (白蟻─慾望謎網, Báiyǐ – Yùwàng Mí Wǎng) – another name for termite, is an apt title for this first indie narrative feature from veteran Taiwanese documentarian, Chu Hsien-che. Voyeurism, sexual fetish, social conservatism, stigma, embarrassment, and longstanding mental illness conspire towards tragedy as one young man becomes the target for a betrayed woman’s scorn, an innocent bystander in her quest for revenge as a salve for her own repressed emotional pain and loneliness. Chu certainly finds plenty of that as guilt and shame continue to eat away at our protagonists, burrowing ever deeper like the termite of the title, undermining already fragile foundations in each of these differently damaged people.

Bai Yide (Chris Wu Kan-Ren) is a quiet, aloof young man who works in a bookstore. On his way home one day, he stops to swipe a set of ladies’ underwear hanging out to dry in the courtyard where he lives. Bai puts on the underwear and then removes it to masturbate in front of his mirror, reduced to angry, desperate tears in the shame of his compulsion.

Unbeknownst to Bai, his illicit activities have not gone unnoticed. Two bored students, Tang Junhong (Aviis Zhong) and her minion Lu Peiyi, saw Bai steal the pants and bra and filmed him doing it. On the rebound for a bad breakup and looking for some random payback, Junhong mails Bai a copy of the DVD exposing his sordid needs. Junhong is, apparently, offended by Bai’s “depravity” though her true motivations remain unclear even to herself. Despite the urgings of Peiyi and Peiyi’s boyfriend who partially assists through his social media accounts, Junhong continues to taunt Bai who soon descends into a cycle of paranoia and depression which eventually has tragic consequences of the kind Junhong had not intended or imagined.

Besides the act of theft, which has admittedly deprived someone of a set of underwear, Bai’s unusual fetishes serve to harm no one though they appear to cause him a degree of mental stress in feeling himself to be in someway transgressive and required to keep his tastes firmly under wraps. The act of theft may be an attraction in and of itself, though if Bai desired pristine, unworn underwear he would likely find it difficult to acquire for the same reasons that lead him to feel ashamed just for wanting it. Junhong has no real right to feel as outraged as she does – it’s not as if Bai stole her pants or harmed her in any way. He is simply an innocent bystander who happened to step into a space approximating that of Junhong’s ex on whom she vowed revenge.

As we later find out from Bai’s melancholy mother, Lan (Yu Tai-yan), Bai had been experiencing a degree of mental distress since childhood. Following the death of his father and subsequently witnessing his mother with another man, Bai has suffered with a compulsion to steal ladies’ underwear beginning with Lan’s. Lan blames herself for this – in having been both too clingy in allowing him to sleep in the same bed long past the age most children lock themselves away in their own rooms, and in having been too self-centred in taking a lover which, she feels, led to a neglect of her son’s interests. Bai, suffering apparent paranoia and depression even in childhood, believing that there is a voice in his hair which torments him, is further unbalanced by Junhong’s campaign of terror. Trying to track down the blackmailer and figure out what is they want out of all of this, he becomes suspicious of everyone, permanently on edge, terrified, and angry lest his sordid secret be revealed.

Driven half mad by her own frenzy of vengeance, Junhong’s actions places a wedge between herself and her best friend Pieyi who thinks things have gone far enough. Friendships ruined, Junhong ends up just as lonely and isolated as Bai before eventually emerging scarred and guilty, unwilling to process the unintended consequences of what she saw as an amusing series of practical jokes probably designed to make her feel powerful when she felt anything but. Junhong attempts to atone by connecting with Bai’s sorrowful mother, Lan, who doesn’t know her true identity, but in any case continues to blame herself for her son’s death. Lan, a tragic figure, is also isolated by her feelings of guilt and self loathing both in claiming responsibility for Bai’s mental instability and for the loss of her husband which kickstarted the pair’s eventual downfall.

Strangely enough the two women bond through their shared guilt and grief, finding common ground even after the truth is revealed. Despite this final plea for empathy and connection, Chu’s premise seems to rest on an association of unusual sexual proclivities with mental illness. Bai’s suffering is never condemned, indeed the film seems to believe he should suffer for his “perversions” rather than criticising the society which has relentlessly excluded him, viewing his instability as further evidence of his otherness rather than a symptom of the isolation he is forced to feel through continued rejections. Nevertheless, Chu does seem to be clear that it is these repressed emotions that eventually become white ants, burrowing deeply inside the sufferer until they threaten to destroy the foundations of humanity, though whether the damage can ever be fully repaired appears to be far less clear.


Seen on Mubi.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Interview with director Chu Hsien-che from Busan 2016