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)

After My Death (죄 많은 소녀, Kim Ui-seok, 2017)

After my death posterKorea has one of the highest suicide rates in the world as the pressure cooker society conspires to railroad those who find themselves in someway excluded from its rigourously conformist demands toward inescapable despair. With the phenomenon so common, has it become true that society itself has become inured to its effects, seeking not to ease suffering but to control damage? For the clutch of schoolgirls at the centre of Kim Ui-seok’s After My Death (죄 많은 소녀, Choe Manheun Sonyeo), suicide has taken on its own allure as an escape from the demands they feel themselves unable to meet but there are few looking to guide them away from the abyss rather than to negate their own responsibility for failing to do so.

A high school student, Kyung-min, is missing. Her backpack and shoes have been found near a local bridge and it is feared that she may have committed suicide though there is no note or additional evidence to suggest that she has taken her own life nor have they found a body. With speculation rife, all eyes are on another student, Young-hee (Jeon Yeo-Bin), apparently one of the last people to have seen Kyung-min alive. Though Young-hee and Kyung-min had been good friends in the past, they were no longer close and had apparently run into each other by chance along with another friend of Young-hee’s, Han-sol. Han-sol’s testimony differs from Young-hee’s in that she says Kyung-min seemed “gloomy” and that the evening had taken an intense turn after she suddenly declared her love for Young-hee only for Young-hee to tell her to prove her devotion by dying.

Things get worse for Young-hee when the police track Kyung-min’s movements via CCTV and find footage from a nearby tunnel which appears to show a gentle kiss between the two girls. Hounded, Young-hee finds herself a target of persistent harassment by her school mates who insist that she is in someway cursed and “infects” people with “bad thoughts” while Kyung-min’s mother (Seo Young-hwa) has also started semi-stalking her hoping to find out “the truth” about what happened to Kyung-min.

The other girls, testifying to Kyung-min’s character, reinforce the view that she was “gloomy”, a loner who didn’t fit in. She didn’t like K-pop, didn’t socialise much, and was into depressing things. When suspicions rise regarding her possible suicide, the school is quick to leap to conclusions – that like many in South Korea she had become over anxious about college applications, but as her grades were good and Kyung-min was a diligent student this explanation seems unlikely which works out well for the school. Kyung-min’s teacher quickly goes into damage limitation mode, confirming that she had been withdrawn, struggled to communicate with her classmates, and was probably very lonely though he lays most of the blame on melancholy ‘90s shoegaze which he assumes must have somehow tipped her over the edge. What all of this means is that it’s not his fault, and he feels he has justification for “failing” in his duties of pastoral care towards a student whom by his own admission he suspected of being in distress.

During Young-hee’s questioning, she repeatedly tells the police officer in charge that she too is suicidal and that she told Kyung-min about her own plan to jump off a bridge because she thought it might help. Young-hee is quite clearly depressed even before all of these very difficult events but finds no one willing to listen to her distress, only making herself a magnet for further hostility from just about everyone with even her teacher berating her for stealing Kyung-min’s thunder in insisting that she stole her idea of jumping off the bridge rather than trying to commit suicide through an overdose of sleeping pills which, Young-hee claims, was her intention before she discouraged her lest she end up still alive but brain damaged.

The lingering doubt is to which “me” is the owner of “death” in the title, or to whom the Korean title of “unrighteous girl” might apply. The motives for Kyung-min’s (presumed) death may be beside the point as a policeman investigating the case suggests – perhaps she didn’t want “understanding” so much as oblivion. What we’re left with is a rather poignant love triangle and the suggestion that Young-hee’s intense depression is a result of repressed same sex attraction which opens another series of questions about which acts are “unrighteous” – suicide or love, with the unfortunate implication that perhaps one cannot but lead to the other. In any case, the problem is that all these kids want to die and the adults no longer want to stop them, only to avoid any potential responsibility for what the children in their care may or may not try to do. Melancholy and drenched in despair, After My Death has nothing but sympathy for its lonely teens but finds no possible escape from the crushing vice of a blame fuelled conformist society.


After My Death was screened as part of the New York Asian Film Festival 2018.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Interview with director Kim Ui-seok from the 2017 Busan International Film Festival (English subtitles)

The Bold, the Corrupt, and the Beautiful (血觀音, Yang Ya-che, 2017)

The Bold the corrupt and the beautiful posterAre you playing the game or is the game playing you? The Bold, the Corrupt, and the Beautiful (血觀音, Xuè Guānyīn) is, as its name suggests, somewhere between trashy soap opera and spaghetti western as its entirely amoral matriarch prepares to sacrifice everything in order to get ahead. The family becomes a metaphor for the state – corrupt, prejudicial, hypocritical, and often heartless in its ruthlessness but like a family a state perhaps reaps what it sows and the lessons Madame Tang has taught her daughters may come back to haunt her.

In the Taiwan of the 1980s – the dying days of the old regime but firmly within the pre-democratic past, Madame Tang (Kara Hui) is the widow of a general and, on the surface of things, an antiques dealer. Her real worth however lies in making herself the society face of genial corruption as the conveyor of the ancient treasures that often stand in for monetary bribes in the complex system of reciprocal politics. Designed to manoeuvre herself and her family into a position of power and perhaps safety, Madame Tang’s machinations amount to a mess of intrigue, manipulating the social interactions of her “friends” in order to convince them to destroy each other and clear a path for her ascendance. Part of her grand plan has involved extensive use of her daughter, Ning Ning (Wu Ke-xi) – now approaching middle-age and thoroughly sick of being her mother’s prize pony, while Chen-Chen (Vicky Chen), still a teenager, has usurped her place as the latest cute little thing to be trotted out and fussed over.

Everything starts to go wrong when a powerful neighbouring family, the Lins, is murdered in a suspicious looking home invasion leaving the daughter, Pien-Pien (Wen Chen-ling), who the closest thing Chen-Chen had to a real human friend, in a coma. Pien-Pien had been carrying on with Marco (Wu Shuwei) the stable boy which obviously had not gone down well with her parents though she had backed out of a plan to elope with him. The police’s theory is that Marco had come back to the family home and taken his revenge, but there is an awful lot more going here than just a jealous proletarian boyfriend hitting back at the bourgeoisie.

Piling layer upon layer Yang’s script is dense and sometimes impenetrable to those not well versed in Taiwanese history and culture. Madame Tang seems to have something of an interesting hidden backstory, swapping easily between standard Taiwanese Mandarin, Cantonese, and Japanese which she, and Chen-Chen, use to get close to Mrs. Lin whose grasp of Taiwanese remains poor despite having lived on the island for many years and being heavily involved in politics. The house the family inhabits is also distinctly Japanese in layout, a colonial era home now inhabited by post-war migrants from other areas of China. The Lins look down on their stable boy not only because of the obvious class difference, or because of their daughter’s relative youth and tarnished reputation, but because he is from a persecuted minority of native peoples.

Marco does however become a kind of key. Chen-Chen, curious and privy to more knowledge than a child of her age ought to have thanks to her mother’s scheming, has developed a fondness for the strapping stable boy and mildly resents being made fun of by the oddly amused Pien-Pien. The rot sets in as Chen-Chen is sent to fetch Ning-Ning only to find her engaging in some kind of orgy in a forest, over which Chen-Chen lingers a little to long only to catch Ning-Ning’s eye and find herself suddenly caught out while her “sister” apparently finds extra spice in her discomfort. Ning-Ning, after years of emotional abuse at the hands of her mother, has begun to rebel by embarrassing her, losing herself in drink, drugs, and promiscuous sex with unsuitable men while Madame Tang still harps on about possible dynastic marriages if now to a distinctly third class tier of potential husbands.

Yang adds a post-modern dimension to the story by framing it as a cautionary tale recounted by a pair of traditional musicians in the manner of Gezi Opera which begins closer to the now before flashing back to show us how we got here. Even if the political metaphors do not hit home without some kind of primer in Taiwanese history, the familial allegory is obvious enough – corruption breeds corruption and the hollow family will eventually swallow its young. The closing coda, presented via intertitles, reminds us that the scariest prospect is not imminent punishment, but a loveless future. The Tangs’ tragedy is not that there was no love between them, but that in their cynicism and insecurity they destroy themselves through a selfish need for control and possession. Madame Tang’s lessons have indeed been learned too well, and in this she damns herself as well as her daughters, condemning all to a loveless future fuelled by greed and fear from which it is impossible to escape.


The Bold, the Corrupt, and the Beautiful was screened as part of the New York Asian Film Festival 2018.

Original trailer (traditional Chinese subtitles only)

Interview with director Yang Ya-che from the 2017 Busan Film Festival (English subtitles)

What a Man Wants (바람 바람 바람, Lee Byeong-heon, 2018)

What a man Wants posterMarriage, eh? Bit of a rollercoaster. Lee Byeong-heon’s sex farce What a Man Wants (바람 바람 바람, Baram Baram Baram) takes two ordinary couples and exposes the various hypocrisies which underpin their existences as they battle boredom and excitement in turn before finally figuring out exactly which relationship(s) they would ideally like to be in full time. The sexual politics are distinctly old fashioned, as is the male fantasy wish fulfilment at the film’s centre, but Lee chooses wryness over cynicism in asking if a little infidelity here and there might actually strengthen an otherwise shaky connection.

Seok-guen (Lee Sung-min) used to design rollercoasters all over the world, but now he drives a taxi on Jeju and gets his kicks “picking up” fares. That’s not to say he doesn’t love his wife, the patient Dam-deok (Jang Young-Nam), but he enjoys the thrill of the chase and favours instant gratification over the patient pleasures of married life. Seok-guen is often aided and abetted in his assignations by his straight laced brother-in-law, Bong-soo (Shin Ha-kyun), who is married to Seuk-guen’s forthright sister, Mi-young (Song Ji-hyo). Bong-soo doesn’t really approve of Seok-guen’s carrying on and doesn’t see the appeal of extra-marital affairs, but realises he has little choice other than to help Seok-guen out or risk his family life imploding. The couples live next-door to one another and are extremely close.

The trouble starts when Seok-guen tries to pick up the alluring Jenny (Lee El) at a pool bar. Bong-soo, not normally smitten, is seemingly hit by a lightening bolt and finds himself suddenly fantasising about another woman. Seok-guen had long been urging Bong-soo to have an affair (which is odd seeing as Bong-soo is married to his little sister), but he probably hadn’t envisaged him stealing Jenny out from under him. Flattered when Jenny starts paying him attention, Bong-soo succumbs only to make a rookie mistake of going home with her panties in his jacket pocket. Bong-soo takes revenge for years of being an alibi and blames the whole thing on Seok-guen who is mock thrown out by Dam-deok though she only really means to teach him a lesson rather than get rid of him for good.

The problem with Jenny is she’s not really real. She’s an embodiment of a male fantasy that might as well have been conjured up by the otherwise dull Bong-soo. With her sexy outfits, self consciously cute way of speaking, and frankly unbelievable interest in a boring failed restaurateur you really have to wonder if she’s not some kind of spy or a master criminal lining up a mark (except that neither Seok-guen or Bong-soo have any money). Sadly, no. She’s just the archetypal sexpot ripped straight from a ‘70s farce with little more to her character than sauciness with a side order of harlotry, despite the valiant efforts of actress Lee El who attempts to imbue her later emotional scenes with depth and sincerity to make up for her underwritten role. Jenny repeatedly claims to know what men “want” and then gives it to them, like some sort of temptress from a folktale, never allowed to express what it is she might “want” but only ever hanging around to be “won” by one of the two guys.

Bong-soo and Seok-guen undergo a role reversal when an unexpected tragedy forces Seok-gun to reassess his philandering ways while Bong-soo becomes a practiced adulterer. The marriage of Mi-young and Bong-soo is already on shaky ground – their sex life is all but dead and they’ve been having trouble conceiving. Mi-young is addicted to social media while Bong-soo spends his spare time building LEGO models, and in addition to being marital partners they also co-own an “Italian” restaurant which Bong-soo has long wanted to turn into a Chinese one (he trained as a Chinese chef) but Mi-young continually ignores his dream despite the fact that the restaurant is permanently empty and about to go bankrupt. Partly mid-life crisis, Bong-soo’s affair is motivated by a need to reassert his “manhood” while Jenny flatters him, strokes his ego, and does all the “wifely” things the “bossy” Mi-young refuses to do.

Yet just as Seok-guen said they would, Bong-soo’s fortunes improve thanks his to philandering – he becomes a better chef, the business takes off, and Mi-young (paradoxically) seems to develop more faith him as well as additional respect for his increasing “manliness”. Both men, through their interactions with the almost non-existent Jenny, are then forced to consider what, or who, it is they really want though Lee’s message seems to be that there are “secrets” in every marriage and perhaps it’s better not to ask too many questions if you want to maintain a happy married life. Cynical, though gleefully so, What a Man Wants is a salty affair but one which ultimately places its faith in “love” to find its way home despite the messiness of the journey.


What a Man Wants was screened as part of the New York Asian Film Festival 2018.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Neomanila (Mikhail Red, 2017)

Neomanila posterWhat kind of future can there be on the streets of Duterte’s Philippines? For one orphaned son of Manila’s slums, the only answer he can see is none at all. “I’m going to die no matter what I do”, he tells a surrogate maternal figure whose conflicted maternity will eventually bring about ruin for them both. Mikhail Red’s Neomanila is the latest in a string of films to examine the social costs of Duterte’s “Extra Judicial Killings” of “Drug Dealers” often conducted by vigilante bounty hunters working with the tacit complicity of legitimate law enforcement. Inheriting a world of corruption where life is cheap and sensitivity breeds despair, boys like Toto (Timothy Castillo) find themselves caught in the crossfire of an increasingly heartless regime.

When we first meet Toto, he’s trying to visit his older brother, Kiko (Ross Pesigan), who has been rounded up by the police in a drug dealer trawl. Kiko is small fry – a petty gangster only peripherally connected with the drug trade, but the police are holding him in the hope of tracking down another suspect, Ringgo (Edwin Nombre). The problem is, unbeknownst to Kiko or to Toto, Ringgo is already dead – he was the dealer we just saw gunned down in the street by a hired assassin. Trying to figure out how to get the bail money together for his brother, Toto pays a visit to a local gang boss and then hangs out with his girlfriend Gina (Angeline Andoy) in between running petty errands for the gang. One particular job brings him into the orbit of Irma (Eula Valdez) – a woman running a “pest control” business who used to know his mother before she was killed in a fire in the slums some years ago. Irma offers him a job in her store, but Toto quickly becomes aware that Irma runs a lucrative sideline as a hitwoman for hire. Together with her partner (both romantic and crime) Raul (Rocky Salumbides), Irma works for mysterious police handler Sarge who gives the pair frequent assignments to take care of “suspects” and bring home the drugs as well as other kinds of “valuable” “evidence” including phones and weaponry.

Orphaned at a young age, Toto is left entirely alone on the streets of Manila. He’s not a really part of the gang and cannot rely them for familial support and with his brother out of the picture he has no one to stand for him. The quasi-maternal connection he builds with Irma is he closest thing to family he has experienced in quite some time. Irma too, apparently mother to an absent son, quickly takes on the role of Toto’s protector – she gives him her own son’s clothes, feeds him, and later takes him out on trips to the karaoke bar or shopping to buy trainers all while “training” him to become a part of her outfit even whilst believing that Toto is somehow “better” and not “like the other” kids from the slums who get mixed up in drugs and crime through having no other options to survive. Wanting to “contribute” as part of the family, Toto goes along with Irma’s morally dubious education but he is also still a child with a deeply felt sense of humanity and justice and is therefore increasingly conflicted about the duo’s heartlessness and refusal to question their various assignments.

Trapped by the world he has inherited, Toto has few options other than to conform to the harshness of its rules or risk becoming a victim of them. The vision Red paints of modern Manila is one lit by gloomy neon half-light in which gangsters go to mass and priests preach about the seventh commandment while the state itself sanctions bloody murder in the streets conducted by those with vested interests in perpetuating a world of inescapable poverty in which death has become an industry. Drenched in despair and unbelievably bleak, Neomanila is a story of a city eating itself alive in which there is no future, no possibility of salvation, and innocence is just another weakness to be burned on an altar to (im)moral austerities so that the world might feel “safer” to those who live in fear of its self-created evils.


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

Original trailer (English subtitles)