Happy Old Year (ฮาวทูทิ้ง..ทิ้งอย่างไรไม่ให้เหลือเธอ, Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit, 2019)

“Some things won’t go away just because you pretend to forget all about it” the heroine of Happy Old Year (ฮาวทูทิ้ง..ทิ้งอย่างไรไม่ให้เหลือเธอ) is reminded by an exasperated friend preparing to forgive her once again for another thoughtless hurt. According to Jean (Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying), “Minimalism is like…a Buddhist philosophy. It’s about letting go”, only her minimalism has been of an emotional kind and in essence the very opposite of letting go. Her approach to life’s many difficulties has been to throw them into a mental black bag, consign them to a black hole of memory, and then simply walk away, but there’s only so much space for delayed trauma and one day you’ll have to start opening some of those bags so that you can finally let go for real. 

20-something Jean has been living in Sweden for the past few years and has recently returned to Thailand, more or less against her will. For some reason, she seems to have asserted ownership over her family’s home which once housed her father’s musical instrument repair shop. Without bothering to ask her mother (Apasiri Nitibhon) or brother, Jean has decided to radically redesign the property’s ground floor into an office space, sending her remaining family members upstairs. Talking things over with her old friend Pink (Padcha Kitchaicharoen) who seems to be involved in construction, she wants to get the work started shortly after New Year not least because the new job she’s just been offered wants to make an office visit the following month. They’ve got a scant few weeks to clear 30 years’ worth of clutter so the builders can do their thing. 

Jean’s plan is basically to sweep everything into bin bags and dispose of them without giving it too much thought. Coming round to the idea, her brother Jay (Thirawat Ngosawang) starts watching Marie Kondo videos to get into the mood, but “complains” that everything he touches sparks joy. He can’t bring himself to part with the myriad “tacky” souvenirs he’s amassed over a lifetime because it’s the thought that counts and throwing them out is like throwing away kindness. According to Jean, “being emotional only brings trouble”, though she is perhaps a little troubled bagging up an oversize teddy gifted by a friend at graduation with a card that reads “take care of me”. She gets her comeuppance when Pink notices a CD she once gave her with a message inside lying on top of a to go pile and is understandably hurt. To Jean it’s just a meaningless object. No one listens to CDs anymore, but to Pink it doesn’t matter that it was gift from years ago, throwing out the CD is like erasing a moment in time, negating the importance of their teenage friendship. 

Pink’s reaction is Jean’s first clue that her wholesale bag and toss philosophy might be problematic. When she finds a scarf she’d knitted for Jay in his to go pile, she gets a taste of her own medicine. Reassessing her possessions, she realises she has more than a few items technically intended for other people that she has selfishly never passed on. Inspired by Pink and in a bid to find some kind of closure, she decides the best thing is to start returning the “borrowed” items to their rightful owners, but quickly discovers that not everyone is thrilled to have the past suddenly presented to them in the form of a random object. An attempt to return a double bass she was supposed to get her dad to repair goes very badly indeed, to the extent that Jean must simply have forgotten or just not realised how badly she had injured her friend. 

Emotionally immature, Jean has an almost childlike view of interpersonal relations, firmly believing that just saying sorry will make everything alright again (even you don’t really mean it). Her most difficult task is returning a camera and unused rolls of film to the high school boyfriend (Sunny Suwanmethanont) she dumped by ghosting after going to Sweden. Too cowardly to go in person, she tries mailing it, but when the parcel comes back return to sender she knows she has to try face to face. Aim listens to her heartfelt confession and seemingly forgives her, inviting her inside for tea with his new girlfriend Mi (Arisara Buaprang), but what Jean really wanted was a blazing row so she could expiate her guilt. 

Later, a slightly less magnanimous Aim points out that Jean’s quest to prove that she wasn’t selfish person is actually incredibly selfish. What she’s been doing, in essence, is dumping all of her emotional baggage on her friends and then walking away leaving them to deal with it on their own. The apology she made was for herself, not him. If she really cared, she’d have found a way to carry her guilt without burdening others. 

Nevertheless, some objects do have presence. “It seemed like an ordinary photo and now it’s priceless” Aim remarks on helping to find one of Jean’s errant objects, the first photo of a couple of high school sweethearts now about to get married. Another photo calls up memories of a supposedly happier time in Jean’s childhood but it’s a memory she can’t bear to keep or delete. While her mother doggedly clings to her father’s piano despite the fact that no one can play it, Jean wants to bulldoze everything, erase their history as a family by replacing their cluttered home with crisp white walls and shiny steel. Only too late may she realise what she’s losing, that with every discarded object a piece of her goes too and soon there may be nothing left at all. Turns out that trying to deal with your abandonment issues by abandoning things isn’t as sound a strategy as it might sound. “This is the era of cloud storage”, Jean points out, but in many ways it’s our orphaned files who make us who we are. Minimalism might be about letting go, but you need to remember to keep hold of yourself in the knowledge that memories don’t belong to you alone but connect you to the world through a thousand shared kindnesses and tiny hurts trapped inside the most banal of objects.


Currently available to stream on Netflix in the UK (and possibly other territories)

International trailer (English subtitles)

Time to Hunt (사냥의 시간, Yoon Sung-hyun, 2020)

A little over 20 years ago, the Korean economy faced an existential threat in the face of the Asian Financial Crisis during which it defaulted on its loans, ran out of ready cash, and was forced to accept concessions some regarded as humiliating not to mention politically regressive as part of the bailout package it negotiated with the IMF. Returning nine years after his indie debut Bleak Night, Yoon Sung-hyun brings these events very much to the fore with Time to Hunt (사냥의 시간, Sanyangui Sigan) while blending them with a painfully contemporary take on “Hell Joseon” pushed into a literal dystopia in which Korea has somehow become a lawless police state in which the Won is now worthless as the government once again defaults and is forced to negotiate with the IMF while workers protest in the streets against mass layoffs and forced “restructuring”. 

It’s into this world that Jun-seok (Lee Je-hoon) emerges after spending three years in prison for a robbery which was supposed to be his first and last job. Unfortunately, the loot he got sent away for stealing turns out to be worthless, the Won being so unreliable that most shops no longer accept it and insist on trading with the American Dollar though currency exchange is also illegal. Jun-seok finds this out from his two sheepish friends who’ve come to pick him up but didn’t quite have the heart to explain just how much has changed. Previously civilised Korea is now awash with drugs and guns, and crime, it seems, is the only viable economy. While inside, Jun-seok received an invitation to a better place, a paradise waiting for him in Taiwan where it’s always warm and the water is a beautifully clear shade of emerald. The only problem is he has to buy in, and without the loot he’s stuck. Which is why he talks his friends, plus a guy who owes him money, into helping him rob an underground casino operated by gangsters. 

The force which binds the men together is futility. On their way to collect Jun-seok, Ki-hoon (Choi Woo-shik) and Jang-ho (Ahn Jae-hong) joke about trying to sell vintage clothes abroad. “This isn’t the time for pride”, they remark, “we’re penniless”. Ki-hoon isn’t keen on Jun-seok’s scheme, reminding Jang-ho that after the last time they swore they’d never do anything like that again. Jang-ho, however,  has decided to go for it, partly out of loyalty to Jun-seok who took the fall for them and went to prison alone, and partly because, well, what else is there? While Jun-seok was inside, they lived quiet, honest lives but it’s got them nowhere and all that’s waiting for them is more of the same. “We’ll just be bottom dwellers,” he sighs, “when we pull this off we can live like human beings”. 

Yet even between bottom dwellers there are further class divisions. Jang-ho is an orphan with no family to fall back on, while Jun-seok’s mother has passed away leaving him only with a vague dream of an island paradise, a 1950s-style postcard from Hawaii sitting next to her photo on a makeshift altar. Jang-ho also has asthma which means he was exempted from military service, something that leaves him at a disadvantage in the world in which he now lives as the only member of the group without weapons training. Ki-hoon meanwhile has two loving parents, but that also means additional responsibilities in exchange for a permanent safety net. 

Ki-hoon’s family is also evidence of rapid social change. His parents own a modest Korean-style home complete with a well which is a source of amusement to city-raised Jang-ho, while the boys are about to be kicked out of their tiny flat for failing to pay the rent. Ki-hoon’s dad is also one of the protestors outside the factory, loudly calling for the government to “secure laborers’ right to live”. Perhaps to his generation, protest has possibility, to Ki-hoon it seems not only “pointless” but potentially dangerous even as his dad grins ear to ear while shouting out slogans in the hope of social change. 

The boys take a desperate chance because they know nothing other than desperation. “We don’t have anything to lose now” Jun-seok points out, but immediately contradicts himself in claiming that he never wants to lose the “dream” of his Taiwanese paradise. Dreams are however also something which plague him, visions of accidentally causing the deaths of those close to him or scenes of blood and ghosts followed by the melancholy image of a friend finally returning. The tragedy is that the heist comes off without a hitch, they do everything right, but they’ve made a fatally naive mistake. In trying to cover their tracks, they swipe the CCTV footage, little knowing that the hard drives also host extremely valuable information regarding the casino’s police-backed VIP money laundering operation which is why they find themselves “hunted” by a cruel and relentless gunman. In over their heads, the guys think this is about the money and maybe they can just give it back, never knowing that they’re sitting on something much more valuable or why it is they’re really being chased. 

“This isn’t the world you used to live,” Jun-seok is warned once again, “no matter where you are, you cannot escape”. Han (Park Hae-soo), the relentless hunter, becomes an omnipresent threat fused with the shadows as a representative of the societal corruption which cannot it seems be overcome. Shiny LCD screens pepper the landscape as a grim reminder of a possible future, the tech giant of the world now a lawless wasteland filled with derelict buildings and shuttered businesses, a corrupt police state in which the police is the biggest gang and the man owns the streets. Jun-seok dreams of an island paradise where everything is calm and airy, he owns a small shop repairing bicycles, and goes fishing on the beach. Such a wholesome future is more than he could ever expect to gain, but eventually he realises that you can’t escape the spectre of control by refusing to face it and the only way to be free in your own personal paradise is to exorcise your demons so you need not fear the darkness.  


Time to Hunt is currently available to stream worldwide via Netflix.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Svaha: The Sixth Finger (사바하, Jang Jae-hyun, 2019)

The thing about prophesies and the prophets who proclaim them, is that they only have power if people choose to believe in them. “Faith” can become a convenient cover for those who’d rather not explain themselves, a mechanism for manipulating sometimes vulnerable people looking for a greater truth or a purpose in their lives. Svaha: The Sixth Finger’s (사바하) dogged pastor is intent on investigating religious crimes and exploiting spiritual charlatans but he of course has his own agenda, that mostly being that he’s keen to get money off his clients who are in turn hoping to bolster their authority by rooting out “heresies”.

Leader of the Far Eastern Religious Research Institute, a kind of religious detective agency employing only himself, an undercover assistant, and a “deaconess” secretary, Pastor Park (Lee Jung-jae) makes his money flagging up dodgy and/or exploitative practices connected with organised religion. According to him, freedom of religion is “overly” protected, and he is alone on the frontlines of a spiritual war against unscrupulous cultists. Though some kind of protestant, he often works for/against the Catholic Church and is good friends with a Buddhist monk who gives him a tip off about a weird sect he can’t get a handle on, Deer Hill. 

Meanwhile, a young girl, Geum-hwa (Lee Jae-in), explains to us that she was born with an “evil” twin clamped to her leg. The twin wasn’t expected to survive, but is still living with Geum-hwa and her family who keep her locked up in a shed like a beast. Rightly or wrongly, Geum-hwa connects her sister with the deaths of her parents which occurred fairly soon after the children were born. Her grandfather, with whom Geum-hwa now lives, never even registered the birth of a second child out of fear and shame, never expecting her to survive this long. When a truck hits a bridge and exposes the hidden body of a murdered teenager, the police start investigating too, eventually leading them to two young men loosely connected with the shady Buddhist cult. 

“This world is one big muddy mess”, according to the cultists at Deer Hill. It’s not difficult to see why people might be looking for spiritual reassurance in such a chaotic world, but it’s exactly that need that places like Deer Hill may be seeking to exploit. Nevertheless, the only thing that Park’s undercover agent turns up is that there doesn’t appear to be anything untoward. Deer Hill doesn’t accept offerings from its members and even gives money away to the needy. Tellingly, the real nitty gritty to Park’s clients is in doctrinal deviation, they only really want to know what kind of Buddhism it is that they do and if it’s in line with broader teachings of the faith. 

A further tip off leads them to the mysterious Je-seok (Jung Dong-hwan), a legendary Buddhist priest who studied in Japan but apparently devoted himself to the Independence movement and is said to have achieved enlightenment. Je-seok’s teachings are dark in the extreme, “Pain is the fruit of faith” goes his mantra, “pain purifies your blood”. He believes that he is the “light” that will conquer the “darkness” by snuffing out “snakes”. One of his disciples, brainwashed as a vulnerable young man and encouraged to do terrible things in the name of good, begins to doubt his teachings when confronted with a possible hole in his logic and the very real human cost of his strategy. 

Not quite as cynical as he seems, Park retains his faith. It’s ironic that all this is taking place at Christmas and centres on the prophesied birth of a child that threatens someone’s sense of personal power. Unlike most, Park has always regarded Christmas as a “sad” holiday, unable to forget that Jesus’ birth was accompanied by the mass murder of innocent baby boys. He wonders where God is now and why he permits these things to happen. Park has faith that God sent Jesus into the world for the greater good, but Je-seok has convinced his followers that the same is true of him, that he has come to banish the darkness and that all their pain and suffering is fuel in a holy war. Their faith has been redirected and misused for the benefit of a false prophet, while his opposite number has been made to live a life of bestial misery solely because of superstitious prejudice. The police is a fairly irrelevant presence in this series of spiritual transgressions, but there is much less clarity to be had in “truth” than one might hope with “faith” the only solution in an increasingly uncertain world.


Svaha: The Sixth Finger is currently available to stream on Netflix in the UK (and possibly other territories).

International trailer (English subtitles)

Our Shining Days (闪光少女, Wang Ran, 2017)

Doesn’t everyone deserve their time to shine? For the students at the music conservatoire at the centre of Our Shining Days (闪光少女, Shǎnguāng Shàonǚ), a glittering future may be difficult to imagine. Another in the recent series of Chinese youth comedies, Wang Ran’s debut may clearly be inspired by Japanese anime, but adds a noticeably patriotic beat in making its heroes devotees of traditional music facing off against the “pretentious” threat of European classical. 

The academy is strictly divided along class lines with the snooty classical kids pretty much ruling the roost. When an actual fight breaks out between factions, the conservative headmaster sides with the classical club and erects a series of prison-style gates to confine the folkists to their own corridors while also banning them from staying too late or eating in their rooms. Airy fairy nerd Chen Jing (Xu Lu) hadn’t previously cared about the folk vs classical drama, but is pulled into it when she falls for handsome pianist Wang Wen (Luo Mingjie). That’s why she naively volunteers to be a page turner for him at a big concert, not quite understanding she’s being made fun of. Determined to prove herself to him, she decides to form a traditional folk ensemble but finds it difficult to get recruits, ending up with a group of four otaku girls everyone else is scared of who only agree on the condition that she buys them all plastic model kits every week. 

A true underdog story, Our Shining Days makes heroes of its “losers” whose uncool tastes have seen them roundly rejected not only by their fellow students but also by their families. Chen Jing is a talented Yangqin player, but conflicted in her ambivalence towards traditional Chinese music. Internalising a sense of shame about her niche interest, she half convinces herself that she’s only learned yangqin because her parents made her and is not truly invested in the instrument, which is why she immediately assumes they’ll dissolve the band as soon as her mission of winning Wang’s heart is over. 

The otaku students, however, rediscover a love of the admittedly fantastical music, giving it a cool modern edge inspired by their love of anime and games. The otaku live in the “second dimension” and have already more or less othered themselves, but begin to actively enjoy being part of the band along with the communal pleasure of making music together. Meanwhile, the scruffy Chen Jing begins learning a little about life from the sacred otaku texts of her new friends, only to take their shojo manga-style advice a little too seriously in deciding to make a public confession to Wang which brutally backfires. Wang is planning to go abroad to study classical music, he’s not interested in lowly yangqin players. 

The class drama reaches a crescendo when the conservative headmaster announces that as of the following year the school will cease admitting students playing traditional instruments altogether. Spurred on by Chen Jing and the otaku girls, the oppressed folkists finally find the strength to resist, rising to prove there is a viable ensemble for folk instruments to counter the “sophisticated” classicists. The classicists adopt the motto “let my music be the soundtrack of war”,  but the folkists are all about team effort and peaceful co-existence. When the local inspector reminds the headmaster there is no conflict in music and expresses disapproval of the school’s prison-like environment, the folk ensemble, rather than trying to defeat the classicists, come up with a “better” solution in which they can work together so that folk music can still be heard as part of the big end of year concert. 

A cheerful coming of age tale which ends in the message that there’s a place for everyone and that those who are generous of spirit are the likeliest to prosper and be happy as they do, Our Shining Days also has its share of high school drama as the scruffy Chen Jing gradually progresses to towards a more mature elegance while her best friend Li (Peng Yuchang) gets the courage to confess his feelings in a much less ostentatious manner. Subtly patriotic in its suggestion that traditional folk music is “better” than the false sophistication of pretentious Western classical, the central messages are of love, acceptance, and authenticity, insisting there’s a place for everyone who comes with an equally egalitarian spirit. 


Currently available to stream in the UK (and possibly other territories) via Netflix

Singapore release trailer (English subtitles)

Tune in for Love (유열의 음악앨범, Jung Ji-woo, 2019)

Tune in for love poster 2The course of true love never did run smooth. Another in the recent series of nostalgic ‘90s romances, Tune in for Love (유열의 음악앨범, Yooyeolui Eumakaelbum) takes a pair of nervous youngsters and charts the course of their love story over a decade which, though not quite turbulent, saw its share of difficulties and a host of technological changes. “Miracles are nothing special” the heroine tells us, but when it comes to love miracles are all there is and in the end you’ll just have to learn to trust them.

On Oct. 1, 1994 Hyeon-u (Jung Hae-in) walks into Mi-su’s (Kim Go-eun) bakery looking for something with tofu in it. While inside, he hears the first broadcast of Yoo Yeol’s Music Album, a new morning program which seems to signal the beginning of a new era. Though Mi-su is quick to realise that the only reason someone would be desperately looking for plain tofu early in the morning is because they’ve just been released from prison, she decides to offer him a part-time job in the bakery where he becomes a member of the family alongside her “aunt” Eun-ja (Kim Guk-Hee) who’s taken care of her since her mother died. His past, however, refuses to let him go however much he tries to move away from it. Tracked down by his delinquent friends, Hyeon-u is unable to return to the bakery and will spend the next decade trying to do just that.

Fate parts the youngsters repeatedly, but always brings them back together again seemingly by chance. Military service, changes of address, miscommunication and changing technology all conspire to keep them apart but like any good rom-com the problems aren’t so much circumstantial as personal. A deeply wounded young man, Hyeon-u is taken with the familial atmosphere at the bakery because he feels a sense of acceptance he hasn’t anywhere else, but deep down he still doubts he deserves the “normal life” he so deeply craves. His friends doubt it too, always turning up unexpectedly to remind him of their shared trauma and the debt of guilt he can’t repay. His insecurity prevents him from sharing the source of his pain with Mi-su, keeping her somehow outside the bubble of his shame as the only one capable of knowing the “real” him. She meanwhile is frustrated in realising that he’s holding something back, hurt he doesn’t trust her enough to let him in, and worrying he’ll never truly be ready for full commitment. 

Nevertheless, though often apart they remain painfully in sync, until that is fate brings them back together. As young man with a checkered past and no safety net, Hyeon-u has to fight twice as hard to get ahead, eventually graduating high school and getting into college while supporting himself with part-time jobs. Mi-su, meanwhile, is burdened by the knowledge that she’s lost her mother’s bakery and is desperate to get it back. Dreaming of being a writer, she turns down an internship at the all important radio show to go for a steady job she’s told is at a publisher’s but is actually somewhere more like a print shop where she’s stuck doing incredibly boring admin work. Hyeon-u is unable to get back in touch with her after miraculously reappearing because he’s ashamed to admit that he ended up getting in trouble again thanks to his awful friends even though it really wasn’t his fault. She meanwhile confesses that a part of her was relieved not to hear from him because she too is unhappy in herself, feeling lost and confused, disappointed not to be living the kind of life she could be proud of. 

Times change, but their one constant is the radio show broadcasting every morning and providing additional though indirect methods of communication when they are otherwise unable to make contact. Pay phones give way to email and then to mobiles all the way into the early days of the smartphone era, but face to face conversation remains the most difficult. Mi-su gives up on Hyeon-u while he, ironically, probably does sort something out by having a good old fashioned punch up with his generally unhelpful friend. She wonders if she’s better off to make the “smart” choice rather than waiting on love. Hyeon-u is hurt that in the end she didn’t trust him, but is eventually made realise that the problem was that he didn’t trust himself. Then again, you can’t fight the power of true connection or the pain of its absence, all you need to do is a little fine tuning to make sure the signal comes through loud and clear.


Currently available to stream online via Netflix in the UK (and possibly other territories)

Netflix trailer (English subtitles)

Tuna Girl (TUNAガール, Mana Yasuda, 2019)

Tuna girl posterIn perhaps the greatest book review ever written, a young girl in 1944 remarked “This book gives me more information about penguins than I care to have”. After viewing Mana Yasuda’s Tuna Girl (TUNAガール) which is equal parts docudrama about the growing tuna farming industry in contemporary Japan and coming-of age tale about a plucky young girl who, just like the famously impetuous fish, has a habit of rushing headlong into things she doesn’t understand fuelled only by unstoppable enthusiasm and a good heart, you may feel something similar about the titular fish.

Minami (Fuka Koshiba), an excitable young woman, is a fisheries student from Osaka on a short course at a research facility where they pioneer tuna farming. Minami’s big problem is that she hasn’t figured out what her speciality should be which means she’s been put on general fish farming duties but is beginning to think perhaps she’s not cut out for this after all seeing as she’s extremely squeamish when it comes to the real blood and guts of animal husbandry.

Meanwhile, she’s become a little smitten with the handsome but geeky Sudo (Tom Fujita) who gets a bit teary eyed every time he mentions tuna which he describes as the “diamonds of the sea”. Unlike Minami, most of the other students are of the serious sort and all have their particular reasons for attending the facility. Kuroda, an earnest young woman, becomes increasingly fed up with Minami’s thoughtless antics, resenting the extra work and potential for ruin involved with someone like her permanently overexcited friend. As she later reveals, however, that’s largely because she comes from a much more conservative family in which most believe that a woman’s education is a pointless extravagance. Her comparatively progressive grandfather felt differently and left money in his will to make sure she could study to become whatever she wanted to be, only she’s obsessed with fish and it’s difficult to sell a career in fish farming as being of great importance to the future of the human race so she needs to make sure she doesn’t mess this up and risk giving her judgemental relatives additional ammunition.

Kuroda therefore is somewhat unsupportive when Minami goes way over the top in characteristic fashion and ends up on TV introducing the school to a film crew who seem to have some kind of ecological agenda. Dressed in a cheerful summer outfit and plush tuna hat, Minami actually proves quite a capable host providing easily accessibly explanations of the running of the facility and various facts about tuna but tragically makes a huge mistake when she trips and spills valuable specimens live on air, trending on Twitter as a fish killer in the process. Unfortunately, her mistake could have serious consequences for everyone in that the facility, though operating as a commercial venture selling their farmed tuna, is largely reliant on grants which may be revoked if they come under ill repute.

As another student tearfully explains, classmates ought to be supporting each other not acting like bullies when one of them messes up. Kuroda later regrets her actions, explaining that she hates herself for being so serious with other people and secretly wishes she could be more like Minami. They are, after all, all quite unusual people who are passionate about something most people would find strange. Sudo thinks that their mission of perfecting tuna farming in Japan is akin to a sacred duty which lends the whole thing an uncomfortably nationalist bent, while parasite specialist Hosoda is told that by eliminating diseases in fish they can prevent conflict over fishing rights and somehow bring about world peace. Which is all to say that, though this is a bloody business entirely geared towards the efficient consumption of living creatures, everyone has their heart in the right place even if it might take a beat or two to figure it out.

Despite repeated failures and getting dumped by her selfish long distance boyfriend Minami remains steadfast and enthusiastic. She might never figure out her speciality, but learns a valuable lesson from her mentor who tells her that there is no “goal” in research, merely an intention to keep moving forward, much like a tuna rushing endlessly towards the future. Filled with fish facts and possibly too authentic detail of fish farming in Japan, Tuna Girl is far from original but cheerful enough as its enthusiastic heroine gets a few humblings but never gives up on herself or her friends as she charges forth towards her own bright future as a champion of Japanese tuna.


Currently available to stream on Netflix in the UK (and possibly other territories)

TV spot (no subtitles)

Hot Gimmick: Girl Meets Boy (ホットギミック ガールミーツボーイ, Yuki Yamato, 2019)

Hot Gimmick posterStrangely enough, shojo manga adaptations can in fact be among the most problematic exercises in contemporary Japanese cinema. Targeted very specifically at adolescent girls, the romantic world that they present is often consumed by its own sense of blind innocence as the shy heroine eventually finds love with a “handsome prince” who, though sometimes an inappropriate figure, is either improbably gentlemanly or a “difficult” Mr. Darcy type who more or less bullies her into submission. Yuki Yamato’s adaptation of Miki Aihara’s Hot Gimmick, given the subtitle “girl meets boy” (ホットギミック ガールミーツボーイ), however, seems to be well aware of the genre’s uncomfortable tendency to reinforce conservative social norms and normalise unhealthy relationship dynamics, even if it perhaps fails to entirely reject it in its broadly positive yet ambivalent conclusion.

Innocent and naive high schooler Hatsumi (Miona Hori) has been charged with secretly picking up a pregnancy test for her younger yet much more worldly sister Akane (Hiyori Sakurada) who ends up losing it on their way home from school. Unfortunately, it’s found by a schoolmate, Ryoki (Hiroya Shimizu), who uses it to blackmail her, forcing her to become his “slave” or he’ll send the test straight to her mother. For reasons not entirely clear besides her natural diffidence, Hatsumi goes along with it but is still carrying a torch for a childhood friend, Azusa (Mizuki Itagaki), who has since gone on to become a top idol. Unbeknownst to her, Azusa has in fact returned, apparently missing them all at the estate where he used to live. Increasingly terrorised by Ryoki, Hatsumi is more worried that Azusa will get the wrong idea and assume she is romantically involved with him. Meanwhile, her brother Shinogu (Shotaro Mamiya) is worried about both guys, overprotective in a disappointingly patriarchal way.

This is indeed a very patriarchal world. Unlike her sister, Hatsumi is romantically naive and terrified of the consequences of someone finding out about the pregnancy test even if Akane is fairly unfazed, simply brushing off questions from her mother by implying that someone is probably playing tricks on them. Hatsumi is preoccupied with the nature of “cuteness” and intensely insecure, which is perhaps why she allows herself to go on being manipulated by Ryoki even while knowing that is exactly what he’s doing. “I’m just stupid and unattractive” she’s fond of saying, fully believing that she has no right to her own agency because she is unable to see her own worth.

That essential insecurity seems to make her a magnet for all the creepy guys in a 10 mile radius. Talking to another somewhat imperfect boy, Akane tells him that guys like girls like Hatsumi who seem “vulnerable”, lamenting for a moment that that’s something she definitely is not (ostensibly, at least), but stopping short of reflecting on how dark a comment that might actually be or how the whole concept of “kawaii” is built on the idea of disempowered femininity. Azusa, who is originally posited as the “innocent” love interest, later turns out to be anything but, while Ryoki is later redeemed (to a point) in leading Hatsumi towards an awareness of an agency over her own body, while she, again problematically, turns to her protective brother rather than engage with the various ways in which all three guys have continually misused and manipulated her.

A intense subplot concerning the legacy of illicit romantic relations in the previous generation binds all of the troubled teens inside a net of moral resentment in which they embrace a kind of conservatism they reject their parents for rejecting. They are all, in a sense, attempting to break free of familial legacies, but find themselves paying for their parents’ mistakes while the parents themselves remain more or less absent, occasionally resurfacing to enforce obedience through shame. What Hatsumi comes to realise, however, is that the lesson they were teaching her was not quite wrong but misguided. Where they told her that she should guard her body because not to do so was shameful, she discovers that there is power in owning herself, that she is free to decide what she does and does not do with her body and has the right to grant or refuse access to it.

Nevertheless, her final sense of empowerment is undercut by her continued relationship with Ryoki who, while perhaps growing to accommodate a less misogynistic world view, is still a boy who tried to make her his slave and repeatedly calls her stupid even if eventually agreeing that the whole world turns in her. Yamato’s stylish visuals add to the sense of absurdity which defines the closing moments as Hatsumi at once affirms an awareness of herself as a being with worth and agency, yet also embraces her “stupidity” as she takes her first few diffident steps towards an assurance of adulthood.


Currently available to stream via Netflix in the UK (and possibly other territories)

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Wandering Earth (流浪地球, Frant Gwo, 2019)

Wandering Earth poster 5Chinese cinema has not been as averse to science fiction as some would have it, but it’s true enough that The Wandering Earth (流浪地球, Liúlàng Dìqiú) marks a bold new chapter in its ambitious attempt to take Hollywood on at its own game. Adapting the novel by China’s premier sci-fi author Liu Cixin, Frant Gwo’s third feature is an interesting take on the New Year movie in which new beginnings are sought and families desperately try to reunite to see them in, only this time they do so against the backdrop of impending apocalypse as the universe threatens to swallow us whole.

Far in the future, the vast expansion of the sun will soon consume the Earth. The Wandering Earth project aims to save humanity by attaching jet thrusters to the Earth’s surface to push it out of harm’s way yet this safety measure has also had grave effects on the planet’s climate rendering the surface uninhabitable. 17 years previously, astronaut Liu Peiqiang (Wu Jing) left his 4-year-old son behind in the care of his father (Ng Man-tat) to take up a position on the space station intended to safeguard the Earth’s future. Now 21, Liu Qi (Qu Chuxiao) has grown up into a resentful, rebellious young man intent on seeing the surface for himself if only not to be home when Peiqiang finally returns to Earth. A natural disaster, however, leaves him stranded with his adopted teenage sister, Duoduo (Zhao Jinmai), just as the Earth is inconveniently drawn into a fatal collision course with Jupiter.

As much about fatherhood as it is about survival of a species, The Wandering Earth centres itself on the angry figure of Liu Qi who has been forced to live his entire adolescence underground and has come to deeply resent the memory of the father who allowed his sickly mother to die and then abandoned him. Peiqiang, meanwhile, has spent 17 years on the space station solely in order to save his son’s future, dreaming of the day they will finally be reunited. He cares little for his own life and has already spiritually handed the baton on to the next generation whose descendants, he hopes, may finally see a kinder sun rise over a new Earth.

This kind of selflessness is also reflected in the film’s refreshingly globalist outlook in which the world, no longer divided, has learned to act as one in order to combat the extreme threat from its own sun. The resistance may be China led, but depends on common endeavour and personal sacrifice. When a last ditch effort is required, the government cannot order its forces away from their families but can offer them the individual choice to keep fighting for survival, bringing teams from all corners of the Earth together as they descend on Indonesia where there just might be a one in a million chance to strike back at Jupiter and escape its gravitational pull.

Meanwhile, Peiqiang is up still up on the space station all alone and powerless while the annoyingly efficient operating system MOSS attempts to frustrate his efforts to save the Earth in service of its own mission to preserve humanity’s legacy. MOSS has made a series of calculations and given up, but giving up is not a very human trait and Peiqiang won’t do it. He makes impassioned speeches to the French-accented global authorities and ponders the best way to ensure his son’s survival even at the cost of his own but finally can only resist by literally attacking the system in overruling MOSS and acting on his own initiative.

A New Year tale through and through, The Wandering Earth is a celebration of family, togetherness, and home but is careful to dial down the patriotism for an insistence on the importance of mutual cooperation between peoples in order to combat existential threat with the spectre of climate change always on the horizon. The point, however, is that it is important to keep hope alive, if not for yourself then at least for others rather than give in to nihilistic despair. The Wandering Earth, grand and ambitious in scale, marks a new dawn of its own in terms of Chinese blockbuster sci-fi and does so with refreshing positivity as it places its hopes in human solidarity and individual sacrifice over jingoism and self-interest.


Currently available to stream on Netflix in the UK and possibly other territories.

Netflix trailer (English subtitles)

Hero (馬永貞, Corey Yuen, 1997)

hero 1997 posterIt’s an old ‘un but a good un. Young gun from the country hits the city, decides to do things his own way, becomes the top dog but loses himself in the process and is then faced with a choice between his better nature and potential gains. Corey Yuen’s remake of the Shaw Brothers classic Boxer from Shantung, Hero (馬永貞, Ma Wing Jing), stars Taiwanese heartthrob Takeshi Kaneshiro in his first big action lead as the titular good guy who nevertheless finds himself wavering under the oppressive skies of turn of the century Shanghai.

Ma Wing Jing (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and his brother Tai Cheung (Yuen Wah) have left their old country home to seek their fortunes in the city following a devastating drought. The Shanghai International Settlement, nominally under the control of the British, was a bustling, international port city but also lawless place where gangsters ruled – Tam Sei (Yuen Biao), who is supported by the Brits, controls half the territory with his rival Yang Shuang (Yuen Ta), backed by the local police, taking the rest. The Ma brothers hoped to make something of themselves in the brave new world of Shanghai but are simply two of thousands of refugees fleeing famine and can only find dock work where they are exploited and treated poorly.

Their fortunes pick up, however, when Wing Jing gets an early opportunity to show off his hero qualifications by saving Tam from certain death during an ambush. Tam, grateful, somewhat humiliates Wing Jing by forcing him to bend for a silver dollar before berating him for doing it but the pair eventually bond in a good old fashioned fist fight. Tam offers him a job, but Wing Jing has learned his lesson – he’ll be his own man and make his own name.

A melancholy love story plays in the background behind the otherwise macho dynamics. Arriving at Tam’s saloon, Wing Jing falls in love at first sight with the beautiful singer, Ling-tze (Jessica Hsuan), but is unable to pursue his romance with her thanks to his brotherly debt to Tam, who is in love with the bar’s landlady, Yam (Valerie Chow), but has broken things off because the of precariousness of his gangster lifestyle. Tam disappears for a bit, leaving the bar and his territory to Wing Jing, but doesn’t bank on Yam’s machinations as she gets rid of Ling-tze and takes up with Wing Jing while working with Yang on an evil plan that turns out to be a weird way of protecting her one true love.

Nevertheless, Wing Jing takes centre stage as he quickly climbs the local tree and becomes the big guy in town, little realising that his bravado has irked just about everyone in sight – he’s not only made himself a target for Yang but for the local Chinese police while Tam’s old associations with the British can’t be counted on forever. Yang, ironically enough, is playing divide and conquer but Wing Jing is too naive to see and too hotheaded to listen to Tam’s advice even when he returns to offer it.

Then again, a hero is a hero through and through and so it’s not long before Wing Jing’s moral goodness begins to resurface and he realises where his loyalties really lie. Given that Hero is a Hong Kong production released in 1997, perhaps it’s less surprising that the good guys are the ones backed by the British rather than local law enforcement which is, of course, deeply corrupt and and immersed in Yang’s world of internecine scheming. Still, this Shanghai is one of scrapping poor boys fighting for freedom from oppression (if accidentally veering into the role of oppressor in the process) much more than it is about international politics or the or the increasingly global milieu of the late 19th century city and its position as the gateway to the East for an avaricious Europe.

Mixing classic Shaw Brothers style with a modern New Wave edge, Yuen gives Kaneshiro his time to shine as an ultra cool action hero complete with a series of hugely impressive action sequences culminating in a fantastically satisfying final shoot out where blood and brotherhood take centre stage. But there can be no winners in this world of betrayals and counter betrayals, and so our Hero may have to leave it behind for pastures new as he takes his heroism with him into a hopefully better future.


Currently available to stream on Netflix in the UK and possibly other territories.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Drug King (麻藥王 / 마약왕, Woo Min-ho, 2018)

Drug King posterKorean cinema has been in a reflective mood of late, keen to re-examine the turbulent post-war era in the wake of a second wave of democratic protest and political turmoil. Even so, dealing with the difficult Park Chung-hee era has remained sensitive with the legacy of life under a repressive regime apparently very much still felt. Woo Min-ho’s Drug King (麻藥王 / 마약왕, Mayakwang) is first and foremost a crime doesn’t pay story, but it’s also a subtle condemnation of authoritarianism and the corruption and cronyism that goes along with it. Painting its hero’s rise as a consequence of the society in which he lives, it perhaps implies the new wind of egalitarian democracy made such amoral venality a thing of the past but then again is at pains to show that nothing really changes when it comes to greed and resentment.

Our hero, Lee Doo-sam (Song Kang-ho), starts out as a jeweller dabbling in smuggling in Busan in 1972. Just as the smuggling business starts to take off, Doo-sam’s boss falls out with his friends in high places and decides to throw him to the wolves while he escapes abroad to safety. Doo-sam, not one to be beaten, starts coming up with ideas. Mobilising his wife (Kim So-jin) to get him out of jail through a combination of bribery and blackmail, he teams up with the area’s smuggling king to act on a tip-off he got from a Korean-Japanese yakuza and begins producing popular drug Crank for export to Japan.

As the opening voice over explains, Crank is a dangerous stimulant developed by the Japanese during the war and given to factory workers and kamikaze pilots because of its ability to eliminate both fear and fatigue. It is also highly addictive and provides an extreme high which have made it a popular recreational drug but, crucially, the real value is economic. The rising Japan is keen to make use of foreign labour, and Korea is keen to up its export capability. This, coupled with poor regulation of the workforce, has led to extreme exploitation in which factory workers are encouraged to hop themselves up on stimulants to keep working overtime for the sake of economic expansion. Thus, the influx of Crank is, in many ways, simply another facet of ongoing Japanese imperialism.

Not that Lee Doo-Sam cares very much about that. An honest prosecutor later puts it to him that he’s contributing to the exploitation of ordinary workers who might earn a few pennies extra for working a few more hours but at the cost of their health and wellbeing, while he gets filthy rich off the back of their misery. Doo-sam is, however, unrepentant. In the beginning he just wanted to provide for his wife, children, and unmarried sisters, but perhaps he also wanted to kick back against his reduced circumstances and he certainly did enjoy playing the big man. In any case, it has paid off. Doo-sam too has friends in high places and they won’t want to let him sit in a police cell for long in case he starts feeling chatty.

Times change, however, and whatever standing and influence Doo-sam thought he’d accrued his life is built on sand. When Park is assassinated by a member of his own security team, all those contacts are pretty much useless because the cronies are now out in the cold. There are protests in the streets and the wind of a new era is already blowing through even if it is still a fair few years away. That bold new era will, it hopes, do away with men like Doo-sam and their way of thinking, eradicating corruption and backhanders in favour of honest meritocracy. Naive, perhaps, and idealistic but it is true enough that Doo-sam is a man whose era has passed him by while he, arrogantly, burned all his bridges and gleefully sacrificed love and friendship on the altar of greed and empty ambition.

Hubris is Doo-sam’s fatal flaw, but he remains a weasel to the end only too keen to sell out his associates in order to save his own skin. He may claim he was only trying to live a “decent” life, but his definition of “decent” may differ wildly from the norm. Nevertheless, perhaps he was just like many scrappy young men of post-war years, desperate, hungry, and left with few honest options to feed his family if one who later found himself corrupted by backstreet “success” and the dubious morals of the world in which he lived which encouraged him to disregard conventional morality in favour of personal gain. Much more about life in Korea in the authoritarian ‘70s than it is about crime, The Drug King is nevertheless an ironic tragedy in which its drug peddling hero eventually enables the birth of a dedicated narcotics squad and helps to dismantle system which allowed him to prosper all while grinning wildly and, presumably, planning his next move.


Currently available to stream online via Netflix in the UK and possibly other territories.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Key tracks from the (fantastic) soundtrack:

Jung Hoon-Hee – Flower Road

Kim Jung Mi – Wind