Counters (카운터스, Lee Il-ha, 2017)

Counters poster 1The far right is on the rise the world over and Japan is no exception. A resurgent nationalism has long been a worry as the memory of wartime folly fades and the young, manipulated by fears of the nuclear threat from North Korea and frustrated by a stagnant economy, are duped by the messages of unscrupulous forces who convince them the cause of all their troubles is an easily scapegoated minority. Lee Il-ha’s documentary Counters (카운터스) takes a look at the deeply entrenched xenophobic racism directed at “Zainichi” Koreans and the counter protest movement against it which finds itself divided over the question of violence.

The main focus of Lee’s documentary is the enigmatic leader of the “Otoko-gumi” (lit. “men’s group”, a noticeably yakuza-esque name) – former mob boss Takahashi. Unlike many of the “Counters” who turn up to disrupt right-wing rallies, Takahashi identifies himself as a right-winger who venerates the Emperor and the Imperial past but cannot tolerate the unfettered bullying of those who shout vile racist statements while preaching the glory of Japan. A former yakuza, Takahashi himself had originally been taken in by the falsehoods spread by men like Sakurai – the virulently racist leader of Zaitokukai which makes the dubious claim that Zainichi Koreans are somehow “privileged” thanks to special residency arrangements originally set up to avoid the bureaucratic nightmare of trying to account for all the Korean (and Taiwanese) residents who arrived as Japanese citizens during the colonial period. Though he had harboured doubts about the anti-Korean propaganda he’d been hearing, it wasn’t until he had the opportunity of a straightforward conversation with an activist that he came to realise that it was all lies and the guys on the other side had a point after all.

Later, one of his comrades describes Takahashi as an old school yakuza – the kind that thinks it’s his job to protect people and stand up for those who can’t stand up for themselves. Takahashi evidently doesn’t like bullies or liars and was brought into the struggle by witnessing an old lady in kabukicho crying after a protest. His methods are, however, those of the street. Running Otoko like a gang he determines that the best way to silence the racists is to rough them up so they’ll think twice about coming back.

This places places Otoko at odds with the mainstream Counter movement which is committed to non-violent protest and social change through outreach and education. Though their aims share much in common, the Counter organisation fears becoming with associated with Otoko because of its less savoury elements – not only the violence itself but Takahashi’s criminal past and ties to the yakuza. If the Counters want to be taken seriously as a legitimate protest group, they have to be careful to present a professional, diplomatic image. Meanwhile, Otoko is free to shake things up without needing to think too hard about anything much beyond crushing the racist right.

Another activist engaged in building a shelter for oppressed minorities – not just Zainichi Koreans but Ainu, Brazilian-Japanese, LGBTQ+ etc, admits as much when he attempts to probe the paradox of Takahashi’s liminal status in the political world. The progressive movement has long been bound by its own principles and progress has been slow. Like it or not, Otoko seems to have created a shift in the political landscape no matter how one might feel about their methods. Takahashi corrals his men into building the shelter by day, but is a frequent visitor to the Yasukuni shrine in the mornings. Nevertheless, he remains an unlikely ally at the side of all oppressed peoples including transgender men and women and the LGBTQ+ community.

Lee imbues his footage with the true punk spirit, spinning back from Takahashi’s violent clashes to a whimsical jazz overshadowing the shadiness of government while playing heavily with on screen text and effects which occasionally trivialise the action as in Sakurai’s failed showdown with the Mayor of Osaka who proves once and for all that he won’t have any of Sakurai’s nonsense in his kind and welcoming city. The level of vitriol on show is truly shocking with heinous, violent statements offered by ordinary young women turning on the kawaii to call for the deaths of a persecuted minority while middle-school girls influenced by right-wing fathers preach atrocity in the streets (tacitly confirming the veracity of various other atrocities the right is usually keen to deny). The long awaited anti-hate speech law may finally have been passed, but there is still much work to do. The Sakurais of the world aren’t giving up, but neither are the Counters. A timely reminder that now more than ever resistance is the key.


Counters was screened as part of the 2018 New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (Korean subtitles only)

Missing Johnny (強尼.凱克, Huang Xi, 2017)

missing johnny poster 2“When people are too close they forget how to love each other” – so claims a lonely soul at the centre of Huang Xi’s debut Missing Johnny (強尼.凱克, Qiáng ní. Kǎi kè). A Taipei tale of urban disconnection, Missing Johnny is defined by mysterious absences and dangling connections as its three melancholy protagonists try to break free of their various obstacles to move towards a more fulfilling future. Family becomes both tether and support, a source of friction for all but very much a part of a the vice-like grip the traditional society is wielding over their lives. Yet there is hope for genuine connection and new beginnings even if you have to get out and push.

Casual labourer Feng (Lawrence Ko) has returned to Taipei after a failed venture only to see his car repeatedly break down, forcing him to seek help from a childhood friend. Meanwhile, Hsu (Rima Zeidan), a young woman living alone, fills her life with colourful birds which attract the attention of her landlady’s son, Li (Sean Huang) – a mildly autistic young man who finds it difficult to manage his life but resents his mother’s attempts to manage it for him. When Hsu’s newest parrot makes a bid for freedom, she enlists Li and Feng who has taken a job working on a nearby apartment to help her “rescue” it, sparking a series of connected epiphanies among the otherwise disparate group.

Each of them is, in someway, trapped. Feng is trapped by his difficult familial circumstances and resultant lack of social standing. His parents divorced when he was young and he came to the city alone for high school, forming a close bond with his teacher, Chang (Chang Kuo-chu), and his son, Hao (Duan Chun-hao). Feng is now welcomed as a member of their family but the Changs are not a happy bunch. Mr and Mrs Chang argue endlessly, usually ending with one of them asking for a divorce and Mr. Chang certainly seems to be a “difficult” older gentleman who requires all around him to walk on egg shells lest they say the wrong thing and set him off. Most of his scorn is reserved for Hao whom he regards as a disappointment in not having repaid on his investment. Divorced with a son and boomeranged back home, Hao resents his father’s moodiness and longs to move back out again but with things as they are, possibilities seem slim.

Money becomes a bone of contention for all. Hsu is involved in a long distance relationship with a controlling salaryman who tolerates her love of birds but doesn’t really want to be involved with them. It’s obvious the relationship has all but run its course and Hsu probably wants to end things but doesn’t quite have the energy so just doesn’t make as much time for him as perhaps she once did. Eventually we discover the boyfriend is married to someone else – a wealthy woman he married for her money which he now uses to “support” Hsu, her birds, and her business. Hsu’s boyfriend thinks the money he’s “invested” in the relationship means he’s bought something concrete, throwing it back in Hsu’s face just as Mr. Chang did to Hao. All he can offer her is a mistress’ life but he resents her desire to be free and expects her to be available to him whenever he wants as part of a reciprocal relationship. Mistaking the passage of money for genuine connection may be an ancient failing, but it seems one unlikely to go away.

Feng wants to build a family, despite himself, just a happier one than those he’s known while Hsu and Li are trying to assert their independence in a world which doesn’t quite want to give it to them. Li is almost a grown man but he can’t deny his mother’s suggestion that he needs some help here and there just to get by and that his life really does become confusing when he fails to read the notes she leaves for him reminding him what it is he’s supposed to do today. Like any young man, however, he wants to be free of his mother’s control to pursue his own destiny even if it might mean he gets lost along the way. His mother understands this, but she worries. She doesn’t stop him going but is hurt by his selfish refusal to accept that he causes her pain by wandering off for days on end without sign or warning.

And then what of “Johnny”? Hsu keeps getting calls on her mobile from various people looking for “Johnny” – presumably the same Johnny but really there’s no way to tell. Someone is missing him, anyway. Li asks Feng a philosophical question. He wants to know if birds in flight are still or in motion. A bird, flying, seems to be moving but it occupies a fixed point and is therefore “still” from moment to moment. The same could be said of our three protagonists, each living lonely lives of spiritual inertia carried along only by the rhythms of city life. Thanks to a missing parrot, however, they might finally find the courage to take flight even if they seem to stall at the beginning of their journeys.


Missing Johnny was screened as part of the 2018 New York Asian Film Festival.

Promo video (English subtitles)

Looking for Lucky (寻狗启事, Jiang Jiachen, 2018)

Looking for lucky posterA literal shaggy dog story, Jiang Jiachen’s Looking for Lucky (寻狗启事, Xún Gǒu Qǐshì) is not just the tale of one hapless young man’s attempt to regain his mentor’s approval in the form of his prize pooch, but of that same man’s desperation for a “lucky” break that will set him on a path to middle-class success without the need to debase himself through bribery. A melancholy exploration of the perils and pitfalls of youth in Modern China Jiang’s indie dramedy finds little to be optimistic about, save the faith that nature will run its course and perhaps you will end up where you’re supposed to be even if you have to go on a wild dog chase to get there.

Zhang Guangsheng (Ding Xinhe) is an ambitious grad student from a humble background. With graduation looming, he’s preoccupied about turning his educational investment into a solid job opportunity. Luckily he’s spent the last three years playing errand boy for his professor, Niu, who has all but promised him a cushy faculty job as long as he continues to play his cards right. Everything starts to go wrong when Guangsheng is asked to dog-sit while Niu is away and unwisely delegates the responsibility to his drunken grumpy father (Yu Hai) who loses him after the dog supposedly bites a stuck up little boy who was teasing him. Guangshang does his best to find the dog before Niu gets home, even succumbing to buying a new dog just in case, but all to no avail.

The reason Guangshang needs to find the dog isn’t just guilt and embarrassment at having potentially caused emotional distress to someone he respects, but because he knows that the failure to cope with this minor level of responsibility may ruin his relationship with Niu. Again, the relationship itself is not what’s important so much as what it can do for his career prospects. Guangshang is from a humble background and lacks the resources to buy his way to success as other young people often do – an endorsement from someone like Niu is his only chance to catapult himself into a steady middle-class life. Thus he’s spent the last three years bowing and scraping, debasing himself to be Niu’s go to guy and now it’s all going to out of the window thanks to his dad’s mistake.

A neurotic intellectual, Guangshang’s relationship with his polar opposite of a father is already difficult even before the dog incident. Guangshang’s dad is one of China’s many “laid off workers”, unceremoniously made redundant from a job for life as part the nation’s longterm economic modernisation. An embittered, angry man Guangshang’s dad quarrels with everything and everyone, sees scams everywhere, and has a much more cynical, world weary belief system than his kindhearted, idealistic son. The pair do, however, have something in common in their striving to live “independently” on their own skills alone. Abhorring the corruption of their society in which nothing is done fairly and money rules all, they each stubbornly refuse to give in and do things the “normal” way, not wanting the kind of success than can be bought.

Guangshang might be prepared to humiliate himself by playing servant, but he has his pride and doesn’t like seeing his poverty deployed as a weapon against him – especially by a “wealthy” friend who has looked at all the files and “admires” Guangshang’s perseverance, nor by his mother and her immensely calm second husband who are only too happy to give him the money to “buy” a university position, but not to help his father when he gets himself into trouble (again). Yet what Guangshang eventually discovers is that he has not lived as far from the systems of corruption as he had assumed – a realisation that both bolsters and destroys his sense of self confidence as he begins to understand his father’s true feelings while his sense of security in his academic prowess threatens to implode.

Everybody wants something – usually money, sometimes advancement, but no one can be trusted and nothing is done for free out of the goodness of one’s heart. Guangshang, without money, pays in other ways and then is cruelly undercut by someone else forced to do the same only in a sadder, even more morally dubious fashion as Niu is exposed for the corrupt figure he really is despite his “scholarly” standing. “Let nature take its course” Guangshang is urged by a fortuneteller he turns to in desperation for an indication of the whereabouts of his missing dog, but Guangshang is a young man in a hurry and has no time to wait around for a less than enticing fate. Yet for all the suffering and petty disappointments, justice is eventually served, patience rewarded and the virtuous victorious. Maybe it does all come right in the end, so long as you’ve the patience to let the dog off the leash and enough faith to see him safely home.


Looking for Lucky was screened as part of the 2018 New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Sid & Aya (Not a Love Story) (Irene Villamor, 2018)

Sid & Aya posterIn an increasingly commodified society can there still be room for genuine connection? Sid and Aya attempt to find out in Irene Villamor’s deceptively titled Sid & Aya (Not a Love Story). Sharing much in common with Peter Chan’s Comrades: Almost a Love Story (save for the obvious political allegories), Villamor’s film is a refreshing antidote to the sometimes saccharine, soap opera influenced romantic comedies which often dominate the Philippine box office, swapping classic melodrama for low key indie feels. Yet as much as Sid & Aya is a “love story”, just not of the usual kind, it’s also a perfect encapsulation of a modern social relations as its cynical, amoral hero begins to rediscover his soul through getting to know the tough as nails, wounded but persevering heroine.

Workaholic stockbroker Sid (Dingdong Dantes) is a chronic insomniac. He doesn’t really know what keeps him up at night. He’s read that the causes of sleeplessness include regret, self blame, overthinking, anger, depression, and loneliness but those are things Sid doesn’t particularly want to engage with and so he just muddles through, wasting time in all night coffee shops. It’s in just such a shop that he first runs into Aya (Anne Curtis) – a waitress, and as we will later discover, dry cleaner and performer in a theme park. Aya’s life is very busy but she could always use more cash seeing as she is supporting most of her family including a sickly father and pregnant younger sister while her mum has been working in Japan for almost 20 years, and so she finds herself giving in to Sid’s unusual business proposition – that he pay her for her time while she chats to him to keep his mind off the fact he’s not sleeping so he doesn’t have to keep torturing himself over why that is.

There’s no getting around the fact that it’s an usual arrangement. Money can’t help but complicate everything, but it also makes it easier for the impossibly repressed Sid to begin opening up seeing as this is all transaction and not connection. The pair inevitably grow closer despite the unusual genesis of the relationship, falling in love despite themselves, but Sid is still too busy dealing with the ghosts of the past and his greedy, success hungry insecurity to be willing to take a “risk” on real love rather than take his soulless relationship with his equally soulless “girlfriend” to the next level.

Sid and Aya come from completely worlds. He has an extremely well paid job as a stock broker, she is working three (now four if you count spending time with Sid) jobs just to get by, barely sleeping and still having no money left over to spend on herself. Sid wastes no time letting Aya know that he “fucks people over” for a living, and though he professes to feel no guilt for his part in perpetuating the shadier aspects of capitalism, his world weary voice over betrays a conflict he doesn’t quite want to voice. He starts off thinking he can buy anything, that his money buys him infinite power over people and things. Sid tries to buy Aya, but Aya can’t be bought – she takes his money, but she remains free.

Attempting to escape familial legacy of failure and abandonment, Sid has closed his heart and committed himself to achieving conventional success while Aya has run in the opposite direction – trying to repair her broken family by making enough money to bring her long absent mother back from Japan. Aya’s family has been scattered by the same forces that Sid has chosen to uphold, forces which also threaten to destroy their nascent romance through a series of conflicting world views coupled with personal insecurities and social expectations. Yet the connection forged between them is real enough to have each of them running scared.

Sid claims he has no time for people he doesn’t “need”, while Aya claims she’s tired of loving the people she “needs” to love. Though they perhaps mean very different things with the word “need”, both remain nervous about addressing what it is they might “want” when acquiring it requires so much risk. Love is not something a cynical man like Sid would feel inclined to bet on, but there’s no prize without risk and no sense in taking the chance if you’re not going to bet it all. A messy, grown up romance Sid & Aya (Not a Love Story) is a refreshingly clear eyed look at modern love which finds that true connection is possible but only when you decide to change the game.


Sid & Aya (Not a Love Story) was screened as part of the 2018 New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

End of Summer (西小河的夏天, Zhou Quan, 2017)

The End of Summer posterMany things were changing in late ‘90s China. For one little boy in the summer of 1998, however, nothing much mattered beyond the World Cup which was being broadcast in its entirety for the very first time. Part nostalgia fest for a more innocent world, Zhou Quan’s End of Summer (西小河的夏天, Xī Xiǎo de Xiàtiān) is, as the title implies, a story of befores as its various protagonists attempt to resolve a series of personal crises that will lead to great changes preceding the autumn of 1998.

Football obsessed little boy Xiaoyang (Rong Zishan) has to keep his love a secret because his dad, Jianhua (Zhang Songwen), thinks all sports are frivolous and has forbidden his son to play with the other children. Jianhua is also a high ranking teacher at Xiaoyang’s school and demands high levels of discipline and commitment from his family, even forcing Xiaoyang to dob one of his friends in under heavy questioning about a playground fight. Bored and lonely at home, Xiaoyang has begun to bond with an older man at their courtyard who also loves football and has promised to help Xiaoyang train for the upcoming school tryouts next term if only he can persuade his dad to sign the consent form.

Meanwhile, there’s trouble brewing on the home front. Xiaoyang’s mother Huifang (Tan Zhuo) is a successful Peking Opera performer whose career is skyrocketing now that she’s been nominated for a prestigious award. Jianhua has also been earmarked for a promotion at work and is covering for a sick colleague, but the arrival of a new teacher threatens to dangerously unbalance the carefully won equilibrium of the Gu family.

Miss Shen (Dong Qing) is indeed a harbinger of social change. The polar opposite of Huifang, Miss Shen is a hippyish free spirit who plays the guitar and sings folk songs in a local cafe with her boyfriend. She teaches the children English through singing songs and playing games, always cheerful and energetic with an adorable smile and easy going personality. Xiaoyang proves himself unusually astute for his years when he misinterprets an innocent scene between Miss Shen and his father, correctly guessing that Jianhua has developed a mild crush on the lovely young woman though perhaps not realising that Miss Shen is merely naive and entirely oblivious to her boss’ ulterior motives.

The camera first catches Xiaoyang caught between two football teams, standing motionless and staring vacantly ahead. He remains caught between two worlds while prompted a little early towards the compromises of adulthood as he experiences the moral outrage of realising his rigid, authoritarian father maybe breaking all the rules of conventional morality by stepping out on his mum. A victim of China’s one child policy, he is often intensely lonely, left alone at home with nothing to do but study while his mother is out rehearsing and his dad increasingly staying out late to offer “guidance” to Miss Shen.

Xiaoyang’s loneliness finds a mirror in the grumpy old man from across the way, Zheng (Ku Pao-Ming), who appears to have fallen out with his family and is missing his own absent grandson, Bao. Zheng picks up the fatherly responsibilities Jianhua has failed to fulfil – supporting Xiaoyang in his football dreams, giving him little bits of life advice, listening intently to his worries regarding his parents’ marital problems without trying to sugarcoat the seriousness of the issues or making a pretence of humouring a perspicuous little boy as they turn detective and catch Jianhua in the act but just miss out on his humiliating defeat and the epiphany which accompanies it as he is forced to confront the fact that he has become a sad old man. Jianhua’s major problems stem from an intense lack of self confidence as his growing son begins to reject his rigid authority and his wife’s increasing success punches a hole through his male pride. Temporarily boosted by the possibility of a promotion, he decides to try rebelling by chasing a younger woman who is very much not his type, little knowing that she sees him only as a venerable teacher and is shocked by his improper interest in her.

Meanwhile change is on the horizon everywhere. The courtyard is earmarked for “redevelopment”, and Mr. Zheng’s family are constantly trying to convince him to come and live with them in the city. By the end of the summer everything will have changed, some things for the better and some perhaps not but there will at least be a shift as each is forced into a reconsideration of their present circumstances. End of Summer is gentler than its title would suggest, a wistful look back one dramatic summer in the childhood of a sensitive little boy, but what it lacks in impact it makes up for with sincerity and a good deal of warmth.


End of Summer was screened as part of the New York Asian Film Festival 2018.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Interview with director Zhou Quan from the 2017 Busan Film Festival.

Buffalo Boys (Mike Wiluan, 2018)

Buffalo Boys PortraitIndonesia is embracing the western in grand style. Following hot on the heals of Marlina the Murderer, Buffalo Boys picks up Hollywood’s most idiosyncratic genre and repurposes it to attack the thing that it ultimately stands for – colonialism, while also reasserting its perhaps more positive messages in the quests for honour, justice, and above all personal freedom. A tale of vengeance, Buffalo Boys makes unexpected revolutionaries of its two returnee heroes as they eventually come to realise that their personal quest must take second place to that of their nation as they attempt to liberate their people from the cruel oppression which has so directly affected the course of their own lives.

California, 1860. Brothers Jamar (Ario Bayu) and Suwo (Yoshi Sudarso) have been raised by their uncle Arana (Tio Pakusadewo), brought up in the precarious frontier environment since travelling to the New World as infants. After a shocking incident on a train leaves Arana injured, he realises it’s time to take the brothers back to their homeland to address the long buried past. Twenty years previously, Arana’s brother and the boys’ father, Hamza, was a Sultan who thought he could placate the Dutch colonisers by acquiescing to their demands, but was cruelly cut down by a vicious Captain, Van Trach, who executed him in cold blood. Arana fled with the children, leaving his wife behind and taking with him only the ancestral dagger to remind them of their legacy.

The boys have returned to avenge their father’s death by killing Van Trach (Reinout Bussemaker), but they find that things have only become worse in the twenty years they’ve been away. The Dutch are cruel masters who brand the native Indonesians like cattle, torturing those who won’t play along with their demands, and displaying the bodies of those deemed to have disobeyed their masters in the streets as examples to the others. The bodies which currently line the trees, belong to those who refused to clear their rice fields to grow opium poppies as the Dutch demanded, preferring to feed their families instead. Not content with beatings, torture, and executions Van Trach has now progressed to mass starvation which begs the question who he thinks will be tending to his poppies with half the population weakened through malnutrition.

As soon as the boys arrive they find themselves embroiled in a small conspiracy which leads them straight to Van Trach when they rescue the daughter of the local village head, Sri (Mikha Tambayong), from a lecherous collaborator. Thinking only of their individual revenge, the boys and their uncle plot and watch Van Trach but are increasingly touched by the plight of their people who struggle to survive under such a corrupt and oppressive regime. Poignantly reuniting with an old friend who has suffered years of brutal torture directly at the hands of Van Trach, the boys are reminded that their father was an honest and just man who would not want them to waste their lives in a pointless quest for vengeance, but to dedicate themselves to the wider cause of justice on behalf not just of themselves but of their people. 

Ironically enough, Jamar and Suwo are two returned “cowboys” who find themselves becoming legendary figureheads for a resistance movement on the behalf of the native local population against the cruel and oppressive colonial occupiers. Heavy stuff aside, Buffalo Boys is less an authentic exploration of the colonial era than a pulp fuelled Eastern western filled with exciting bar fights, adventure and romance. The boys are loosely paired off with the rescued Sri and her feisty sister Kiona (Pevita Pearce) who is the original “buffalo girl”, defying her father to ride buffalos and fire arrows at moving targets though sadly reverts to damsel in distress mode for most of the picture save for smashing a bad guy over the head with a bottle and then being allowed to do a little beheading of her own. Nevertheless, Buffalo Boys is a perfect encapsulation of the positive values of the “cinematic” western in its insistence on individual freedom from political oppression but makes sure to temper its central quest with humanistic virtues, making a case for forgiveness and altruism over coldhearted vengeance as the best way to move forward having made peace with the past.


Buffalo Boys was screened as part of the New York Asian Film Festival 2018.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Men on the Dragon (逆流大叔, Sunny Chan, 2018)

Men on the dragon posterLife is tough for the middle-aged man in contemporary Hong Kong, at least according to the directorial debut from screenwriter Sunny Chan Men on the Dragon (逆流大叔). Economic woes, a precarious employment environment, familial strife, and elusive Andy Lau tickets all conspire to make our guys feel powerless in a society that seems primed to crush their spirits. Can dragon boating really help put their fire back in their bellies? Conventional wisdom would say no, but then there is something about physically demanding team sports that is particularly good at inflaming individual desires.

Pegasus Broadband is about to announce another round of mass layoffs which has each of our heroes worried. Participating in a mini protest strike puts them straight in the firing line (even if they were clever enough not to write their real names on the petition forms), but when they’re seemingly lucky enough to escape the axe for now at least they think they can breathe easy. An unexpected call from the boss instructing them to appear at a mysterious location with swimming trunks in hand even has them wondering if they’re being given some kind of bribe to play nice but as it turns out the reverse is true. Pegasus Broadband wants to improve its public image and has decided to do that by entering a team in the upcoming dragon boat races. The race, which they fully expect to win, will be streamed live online to demonstrate the company’s infrastructural superiority. Fearing they’ll be bumped up the redundancy list if they refuse, our guys resign themselves to becoming unlikely dragon boat champions but end up discovering unexpected sides of their potential which prove essential in solving their individual crises.

Suk-yi (Poon Chan Leung), bespectacled and mild-mannered, is the least athletic of the Pegasus Broadband employees but is half grateful for the dragon boating opportunity because it gets him out of the house where his wife and mother constantly bicker while his small daughters can’t stop fighting. Feeling pushed out and unwelcome in his house full of angry women, Suk-yi is desperately looking for some kind of escape or possibility of reasserting his authority which he begins to find while training for the dragon boat races and nursing a small crush on the pretty coach, Dorothy (Jennifer Yu). Meanwhile, Lung (Francis Ng) is unmarried but has found himself in an awkward non-relationship with the woman next-door for whom he cooks and cleans, even taking care of her moody teenage daughter. He dreams of making a real family but lacks both the courage and financial resources to make a move. The youngest of the gang, William (Tony Wu), has the opposite problem in that he’s given up his dream of being a top Ping Pong player to build a future with his girlfriend but begins to realise that he hasn’t given up on his athletic hopes while boss Tai (Kenny Wang) is secretly torn apart by the worry that his wife is having an affair with a sleazy real estate agent.

All four guys have found themselves swept along by the current of modern Hong Kong, coasting without aim or purpose but filled with middle-aged anxiety as they wonder where the river is taking them and if it’s already too late to change the destination. Suk-yi’s dilemma is perhaps the most cliched of the three as he contemplates swapping his disharmonious household for the unattainable charms of an idealised younger woman while Lung chases easy familial bliss, Tai tries to repair a relationship corrupted by modern social pressures, and William wonders if it’s worth giving up a part of yourself to make a relationship work knowing that kernel of resentment will only grow with time. Men on the Dragon is, in this sense, a very “male” story in which four put upon men feel themselves emasculated by oppressive social forces yet learn to rediscover their “manhood” through the intensely physical act of dragon boating.

They are however guided along by an austere young woman who bangs the drum to which they must all march. This is not Dorothy’s story and she gets short shrift among all the guys but there’s something interesting in the fact that she had to hire a “male foreigner” to pretend to be the “real” coach because no one would hire a female dragon boater despite her impressive list of qualifications and credentials. Gently rebuffing Suk-yi’s interest, she nevertheless guides him towards a confrontation he’d long been avoiding in reasserting himself in his own household, restoring his standing in his wife’s eyes and brokering piece with his feisty mother who can’t seem to get on with her Mainland daughter-in-law. It’s the rhythm of life that’s important, Dorothy reminds the guys – you don’t get anywhere unless you’re all pulling together. That might sound like we’re back where we started, being swept along in a mass current without control or direction but it’s individual will which drives the communal enterprise and there can be no progress without agency. Not all dreams work out, but you won’t know unless you try and at least if you crash and burn there are plenty of guys waiting to pull you out of the water.


Men on the Dragon made its world premiere at the New York Asian Film Festival 2018.

Original trailer (English subtitles)