The Fatal Raid (辣警霸王花 2 不義之戰, Jacky Lee, 2019)

Fatal Raid posterUnrealistically heroic as it might have been, Hong Kong cinema was once unafraid to suggest that sometimes good guys bend the rules, but these days the Mainland market is an important consideration and so the right kind of justice must be served. A salacious B-movie and thematic sequel to Special Female Force (itself a loose remake of 1986’s The Inspector Wears Skirts), Fatal Raid does not have much of a message but does make time to muse on the philosophical nature of “justice” as it corresponds to law enforcement.

20 years previously, Hong Kong cops Madame Fong (Leung Yuk-yin) and Tam (Patrick Tam) were members of an elite squad on a covert mission in Macao which went about as wrong as it’s possible to go, concluding in a mass shoot out in which all of the other squad members died. Because the operation must be kept a secret, the fallen officers have not received their proper due – something which continues to weigh heavily on the resentful Tam, while Madame Fong is still suffering with PTSD related to the incident. A quirk of fate sees the two officers return to Macao as part of a security team escorting the current police chief to a conference, but the past returns to haunt them when their convoy is ambushed by drug addled, youthful anarchists striking back against oppressive authoritarianism.

Meanwhile, there’s inter-squad drama between newish overseas recruit Zi Han (Lin Min-Chen) and veteran Alma (Jeana Ho). A flashback to the original incident reminds us that it was being run along male/female squad lines with the elite team of women the driving force of the operation. However, it continues to be an extraordinarily sexist world that the officers inhabit. The comedic banter between Tam and fellow copper Hei (Michael Tong Man-lung) on the fateful day was mostly Hei boasting about how handsome he thought he was and how pretty some of the female officers were. In the present, the ladies face many of the same problems as undercover officers staking out a nightclub are asked to put some clothes on immediately after the operation because the men can’t concentrate surrounded by barely dressed women, and then in Macao introduced to other female officers as if they constitute some kind of special group.

In any case, the main themes are karma and justice and a possible difference between the two. The last officers standing, Fong and Tam feel guilty about another policeman who died whose body was never recovered, presumed destroyed in the explosion. Tam, who feels “justice” has not been served for his friends who were killed in the line of duty, rocks the boat by dedicating his Macao speech to their memory even if the operation they died in officially does not exist (and cannot exist, because they had no right to open fire in Macao). Fong, meanwhile, is conflicted on learning that a former mentor who helped to teach her about “justice” may have crossed over to the dark side. Tam wonders if they really need to go to such great lengths to “uphold justice” and what it is that really gets them, while Fong remains convinced that “justice should be governed by law”.

The anarchists, however, feel as if there is no justice and that law enforcement of any kind is inherently oppressive. Well, to be fair, they are mostly drugged up teens rather than politically conscious rebels, and have fallen under the spell of an older man peddling personal revenge against a system he feels has betrayed him. In any case, the original squad made mistakes which will come back to bite the remaining members as they take on a new generation of thugs outside of their official jurisdiction. Filled with strangely comic scenes such as the early in-car banter and a running subplot about a lovelorn Macao detective and his crush on Zi Han which hark back to a freer, easier era of Hong Kong cinema, Fatal Raid maybe a little rough around the edges but is not without its old-fashioned charms.


The Fatal Raid screens on 5th July as part of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival where stars Jade Leung and Michael Tong will be present to present the film.

Winter After Winter (冬去冬又来, Xing Jian, 2019)

Winter After Winter posterEven in the midst of war, life goes on. How to ensure it keeps doing so becomes a major preoccupation for one peasant farmer, confused as to how he’s supposed to fulfil his obligation to his ancestors if the Japanese insist on taking his sons. Xing Jian’s Winter After Winter (冬去冬又来, Dōng Qù Dōng Yòu Lái) takes a more stoical view of life under the occupation than you’d usually find in Mainland wartime drama, but then its themes are perhaps a little grander as it adopts the perspective of its most oppressed protagonist – the silent Kun (Yan Bingyan) whose bodily destiny is dictated by the men around her while her mild resistance is offered only through small acts of humanistic kindness.

Set in 1944 in the puppet state of Manchuria, Winter After Winter situates itself largely within a single farmhouse where ageing peasant Lao Si (Gao Qiang) is trying to fob off the local Japanese commander (Hibino Akira) who has come for his three sons. Though Lao Si of course does not want his children to go, his concern is more that his oldest son (Dong Lianhai) is impotent and has been unable to impregnate his daughter-in-law Kun so if all the boys are taken now the family line will die. To stop this happening, he tries to force his other two sons to have sex with Kun while he keeps Nakamura busy in the kitchen. His middle son (Yuan Liguo) flees in disgust, running off to join the guerrillas fighting the Japanese while the youngest, shy and inarticulate, tries his best but doesn’t really know what he’s supposed to be doing and is eventually dragged away mid-act, bound for a Japanese forced labour camp.

In some ways, the atmosphere in Lao Si’s village is not as oppressive as one might expect. Now the men have gone, the other villagers are largely left alone with a minimal military presence in the town while they each figure out schemes for keeping the Japanese at bay. The main problem is that once winter sets in there is very little food and the Japanese are intent on keeping most of it for themselves while using their magnanimity as a bargaining chip. Regular searches are made of homes suspected of hoarding rice, while the residents are made to vomit to prove they’ve eaten nothing they weren’t supposed to. Nevertheless, the Japanese commander Nakamura is otherwise shown to be a fair and compassionate man if only largely when dealing with his countrymen – doting over his bedridden wife and little daughter, or making sure to ask a female assistant if she’s warm enough when they sit down to watch a film. Dealing with the Chinese, however, he remains rigid and unforgiving if not actually cruel or abusive. He presses Lao Si for the service owed to him by his absent sons, only reluctantly relenting when told that Kun is unable to work because she has become pregnant but expecting Lao Si to come up with a solution on his own.

Kun’s eventual pregnancy is a problem in itself. Unbeknownst to anyone, the youngest brother manages to escape and begins hiding in the family’s cellar where Kun finds him, keeping the secret and supplying him with food. The pair eventually bond and comfort each other through sex during which Kun conceives a child, but as no one can know of his return, Lao Si arranges to have her marry the “idiot” son (Young Fan) of the local teacher who he assumes is an innocent and will not bother his daughter-in-law with unwanted sexual contact (something that didn’t really bother him when he was keeping it all in the family).

Throughout it all Kun remains stoically silent, never complaining or resisting but simply existing as the right to decide is taken from her by the feckless menfolk who swap and share her with nary a word of kindness. Apparently “adopted” by Lao Si and brought up as a daughter until force married to the oldest son, Kun is made to feel beholden to her father-in-law who behaves as if she owes him her life. Lao Si, meanwhile, blames her for his misfortune – for not being attractive enough to enflame the desire of his oldest son and for sending the middle one running, denying him the heir he so longs for to fulfil his filial duties.

All Kun can do to resist is to rebel against the austerity of her surroundings with kindness. She fulfils her daughterly duties to Lao Si without complaint, tenderly looks after the boys, and finally even offers her own precious food to a Japanese soldier on the run only to pay dearly for it when he brutally betrays her. In the end, all Lao Si’s scheming comes to nothing, defeated by time and circumstance, but it’s Kun who finally makes a positive decision for the future as she perhaps finds him an “heir” even if not the kind he wanted in extending a hand to a crying child signalling an end to conflict and the advent of compassion in the willingness to move forward together without blame or rancour.


Winter After Winter screens on 5th July as part of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival

Clip (English / simplified Chinese subtitles)

It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Show (瘋狂電視台瘋電影, Hsieh Nien Tsu, 2019)

It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Show poster 1New Year comedies are usually about food and community, but for those lonely souls with no one to go home to, perhaps TV can fill the void. That’s certainly been the way for kindhearted TV variety show producer Yeh (Ou Han-Sheng). As a young boy he was often all alone at home and turned to TV for comfort, but with the industry as soulless as it is, is it still possible to lose yourself in the glow of the television screen?

In truth, Yeh’s programming has never been very successful which is perhaps why he finds himself unexpectedly promoted to director by his shady boss Lo (Lin Yu-Chih) who abruptly fires almost everybody else while suddenly insisting on round the clock programming. Unbeknownst to the crew, Lo has fallen foul of eccentric gangster David (Yen Cheng-kuo) who has showbiz ambitions and is determined to buy Crazy TV at a rock bottom price. Lo promoted Yeh in the hope that he’d fail so the ratings would crash and the station would go bust. Yeh’s programming, however, while not exactly a smash begins to find its audience largely through the zany schemes he comes up with to make the most of his budget like substituting repetitive ads for a “signal problem” warning, running cutesy phone-in kids TV, and a deliberately boring overnight program narrated by a guy in a sheep costume and featuring complicated maths problems and military history designed to send you straight to sleep.

Meanwhile, the backstage drama kicks off as Yeh begins to get closer to aspiring Malayasian actress Diva (Lin Min-Chen) while still nursing a broken heart over a failed relationship with a rising star who dumped him for her career. The main issue is, however, his obsession with television as a lifelong friend. As lonely child, TV was there for him, and it was still there for him as an ambitious adult, but somehow it’s lost its way and Yeh isn’t sure how to guide it home. Eventually he has to consider selling his house and earning his living as a noodle vendor while he waits for TV to rediscover its sense of self.

Filled with references to retro Taiwanese television and Western movies, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Show (瘋狂電視台瘋電影, Fēngkuáng Diànshì Tái Fēng Diànyǐngwears its love of the medium on its sleeve but is clearly unafraid to stick the knife in as Crazy TV lives up to its name with a series of bizarre skits created to make up for the fact they have no actual reporters so cannot actually report the news. The only way back in for Yeh, his aspiring actor friend Abi (Liu Kuan-Ting), and Diva is to enter a competition where they have to go head to head with Mr. David reenacting The Godfather, a singer, a guy reading a book, and a pair of gamers. They choose the surreal with a high risk strategy inspired by the movie Money Monster which eventually goes in an unexpected direction. 

A chance meeting with an old friend currently shooting an indie movie brings home to Yeh what exactly has been missing in his TV life – “value”, as in everyone has something valuable in their hearts that ought to be expressed but often isn’t in the increasingly commercialised TV industry. The veteran director deposed during Lo’s mass purge eventually says something similar, that the audience for their programming is mostly the elderly and children and that therefore they should accept a little more responsibility for the programmes that they air and do their best to send positive messages rather than focus on sensationalist stunts designed to win short-term ratings.

Yeh’s epiphany comes a little late, but eventually leads him to realise that if TV was a friend to him it can be a friend of everyone else and then they can all be mutual friends bonding in shared enjoyment even if they’re apart. In true New Year spirit, it really was all about community after all. Adapted from the stage play by variety TV legend Hsieh Nien Tsu, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Show is a warmhearted tribute to the healing power of silly TV, bringing tired people together through shared bemusement as they eagerly tune in to the next crazy onscreen antics as an antidote the increasingly surreal offscreen reality.


It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Show screens on 4th July as part of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival. It will also be screened in Australia on 26th July as part of the Taiwan Film Festival in Sydney.

Original trailer (English/Traditional Chinese subtitles)

If You Are Happy (学区房72小时, Chen Xiaoming, 2019)

If you are happy poster 2“Win at the starting line” has become something of buzzword among parents eager to get their children the best start in the modern China where equality is no longer regarded as a social good. Even in the UK it’s not unusual for parents to go to great lengths to game the system so their children can get into the “better” state schools, but in China where educational background really can make or break a child’s future the stakes are obviously much higher. For the father at the centre of Chen Xiaoming’s biting debut, the ironically titled “If You Are Happy” (学区房72小时, X Fáng Xiǎoshí), the stakes are very high indeed as he bets pretty much everything – his family home, his career, and finally his integrity, on buying a grotty little flat in the rundown part of town where he grew up solely because it’s directly opposite the best primary school in the area.

University professor Fu (Guan Xuan) is a doting father to little daughter Cheng, but as keen as he is to keep up the facade of success his private life is falling apart. His wife, Jiayuan (Fu Miao), is suffering from long term depression and though Cheng seems cheerful, the atmosphere at home is frosty at best with husband and wife barely speaking. Meanwhile, Fu has also been carrying on an illicit affair with one of his students, Hang (Tu Hua) – a wealthy young woman whose mother (Rong Rong) is keen to send her abroad for graduate school to improve her prospects. Hang doesn’t want to go, she says because she’s become attached to Fu, but there are also rumours all over school about teachers accepting bribes to change students’ grades and the jury’s out on whether Hang has ulterior motives.

The main source of stress in Fu’s life is however his ongoing quest to buy a flat in the catchment area of a prestigious primary school. After two years of dashed hopes, an old friend working as an estate agent has a promising lead on a place that’s actually right by where they both grew up. Though the flat is in a bad state and really too small for a family (assuming they actually meant to live there), Fu is loathed to give up the opportunity even though he doesn’t have the ready cash together to seal the deal. Despite his outrage at the teachers who take bribes, he tries to force his friend to pull some strings before coming to the conclusion he’ll have to sell his flat. Fu goes ahead and lists it with another estate agent before even talking to his wife who is understandably not keen to move, insisting that the school around the corner is fine, only for Fu to snobbishly tell her that it’s fine for kids like Tao – a naughty little boy at kindergarten who accidentally slashed Jiayuan’s hand when he somehow got hold of a kitchen knife. 

Fu’s snobbishness is perhaps his defining characteristic. Forced to sell his family home, he bristles when the maid mentions that her son is looking for a flat, coming up with all sorts of excuses as to why he shouldn’t be able to afford it before accepting that money’s money no matter who it comes from. Auntie Niu’s (Xu Xing) son Bao (Liu Xiaodi) has troubles of his own, as they discover when paying him a visit and finding him near suicidal because his fiancée is thinking of breaking things off as her family have refused their blessing for the marriage until Bao can get hold of a flat in a very specific area. Bao’s case is frustrated because he’s not originally from Shanghai and a new law prevents non-locals from owning property. Luckily his fiancée is a Shanghai native but he doesn’t have the money to buy in the escalating Shanghai property market and only has this shot with Fu because he is a “motivated seller” and needs the deposit as soon as possible to put down on the property near the school.

Along with a superiority complex, Fu is also something of a prig and makes a point of being upstanding and respectable, even trying to return a box of expensive tea gifted by Hang’s wealthy businesswoman mother in the hope of currying favour. When someone gazumps him on the flat, he has a minor meltdown insisting on legal action and lamenting the decline of morality in the modern society, but then he turns around and does exactly the same to Auntie Niu despite knowing exactly what the flat means for Bao and having given his solemn word when signing the papers. Such duplicity is too much for Jiayuan who finally finds herself gaining the strength to defy her domineering husband to side with Auntie Niu who really has gone and got a lawyer when betrayed by Fu.

How much getting Cheng into a good school is about Cheng and how much about Fu’s status anxiety is up for debate, but nominally at least all of this is supposed to be for his little girl even though the stress of Fu’s ongoing quest is quietly destroying the family home, has sent his wife into a debilitating depression, and finally robbed him of his personal integrity as he continues to debase himself all in the hope of getting his hands on a really horrible flat in an otherwise undesirable area. Chen closes with a series of (seemingly) real interviews with parents who’ve considered bankrupting themselves just to move into the catchment area of a good school. Most of them concede it isn’t worth it, but are tempted all the same even if they intensely resent the way their society is going. After all, shouldn’t all children be starting in the same place? Why should one school be better than another, and why should the children have to pay for being born to parents with fewer resources to help them? There may not be real answers for any of these questions, but they’re ones the modern China continues to grapple with as the egalitarian past gives way to the moral dubiousness of a consumerist future.


If You Are Happy screens on 3rd July as part of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English/Simplified Chinese subtitles)

The Fable (ザ・ファブル, Kan Eguchi, 2019)

The Fable poster 2It’s easy to become a victim of your own success when you’re a top assassin. Being the best only makes you target, and over exposure can prove fatal. If you’ve lived by taking the lives of others, can you ever really go back to being just like everyone else? The hero of Kan Eguchi’s The Fable (ザ・ファブル) tries to do just that, but then “back” might not quite be the best way to think about it in his case. Silly slapstick humour meets fast and furious gun fu but always with a soulful heart as our heroes try to figure out how to live “normally” while inhabiting a very abnormal world.

“The Fable” (Junichi Okada) is Tokyo’s top assassin, as he proves effortlessly taking out a room full of yakuza at a wedding reception. He is not, however, heartless, letting the gangster’s pregnant wife alone unlike the next bunch of goons to turn up. In any case, Fable has been far too successful, which is why his handler (Koichi Sato) hands him an unusual new mission – to live as a “normal” person in Osaka for a whole year without killing anyone at all. Along with his assistant posing as his sister under the cover ID “Yuko” (Fumino Kimura), and a pet parrot, Fable becomes “Akira Sato” and begins his new life as a “normal” man nominally under the aegis of the local mob.

The problem is “Sato” never had much of a “normal” life. As a child, he was abandoned in the mountains with only a pocket knife to toughen him up for a life of killing. He didn’t go to school, has never had a job, and struggles with social situations. He is however extremely dedicated and committed to fulfilling his mission which means he is very keen to figure out what “normal” people do so he can do that too, quickly noting that “normal” people don’t usually eat the skin on edamame beans or the rind on watermelon so doing either of those things in public will instantly arouse suspicion. Meanwhile, he takes a minimum wage job at small printshop working alongside the lovely Misaki (Mizuki Yamamoto) who was nice enough to offer him some tissues when he let himself get beaten up by thugs to prove how “professional” he could be in maintaining his cover.

That’s something that might be easier said than done given the rapidly unfolding yakuza drama all around him. Recently released thug Kojima (Yuya Yagira) is stirring up trouble everywhere he goes, exacerbating a growing division between the big boss (Ken Mitsuishi) and ambitious underling Sunagawa (Osamu Mukai) who is already fed up with Kojima’s antics while two crazed admirers are also hot on Sato’s trail hoping to knock him off the top spot.

Meticulous and efficient, Sato is still in many ways a child trying to learn to live in the “normal” world. Somewhat arrested in having missed out on a normal childhood, his “childish” drawings of zoo animals become an unexpected hit with the print shop crew, while his justice loving heart also has him subtly undermining the office pervert who has a habit of installing illicit spy cams targeting female employees. Despite his icy profession, Sato is a goodnatured guy and deep down just wants to help and protect people. Thus he is very invested in his mission and actively tries to become “normal” while bonding with Misaki and taking care of his pet parrot (a Le Samouraï reference and ironic mentor in mimicry) as he navigates the difficult waters of interpersonal interaction.

Frustrated male relationships are indeed key from Sato’s with his boss who orders him not to die but then says he’ll kill him if he fails his mission, to the homoerotic tension between Sato’s contact Ebihara (Ken Yasuda) and the relentlessly psychotic Kojima. Sato’s boss and Ebihara acknowledge they will have to accept responsibility for their respective charges and if necessary take preventative measures in order to ensure they don’t cause trouble, but they do so with heavy hearts in service of their codes. Silly slapstick humour quickly gives way to slick action set pieces as Sato steps back into his element, ably assisted by his sake-loving “sister” who has committed to her cover ID almost as deeply as Sato. Sweet and affecting, Kan Eguchi’s adaptation of the much loved manga is a charmingly surreal one in which his fish out of water hero figures out how to live in a new pond thanks to unexpected kindnesses and honourable yakuza ethics.


The Fable screens on 2nd July as part of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Gun (銃, Masaharu Take, 2018)

The Gun poster 1Much as Haruhiko Oyabu had in the post-war era, Fuminori Nakamura is fast becoming the go to voice for nihilistic noir in Japanese cinema. Several of his famously dark novels have already been adapted for the screen, most recently the grisly mystery Last Winter We Parted, but it’s only now that his lowkey debut The Gun (銃, Ju) is getting a suitably detached adaptation from 100 Yen Love’s Masaharu Take.

Like many of Nakamura’s “heroes”, Toru Nishikawa (Nijiro Murakami) is a disaffected youngster who thinks “it’s completely worthless to live”. His life changes one day when he comes across the body of a middle-aged man with a pistol lying next to it. For reasons he doesn’t quite understand, Toru picks the gun up and takes it home with him. Gradually its presence begins to obsess him as if he were literally being seduced by it. Believing he can communicate with the gun through touch, he lovingly caresses it, buys it trinkets, and lingers over thoughts of all they could do together.

Even when he takes a casual hookup (Kyoko Hinami) to bed, all Toru can think about is the gun. In the morning he tries to make her hate him by coming on strong, but it backfires because it appears to be what she likes, at least she suggests they hook up again, possibly on a regular but casual basis because she already has a boyfriend. Meanwhile, another prospect walks onto the scene – Yuko (Alice Hirose), a young woman Toru may or may not have forgotten meeting in the past. With Yuko Toru decides to do everything “properly” in a quest to win her heart rather than just her bodily submission.

Detached and very possibly a sociopath, Toru does indeed begin to show something of a more sensitive side in dealing with the similarly depressed Yuko. His gentlemanly act may be just that (and as one might expect, it largely works) but does at least display an acute emotional intelligence even if it’s being wilfully misused. Similarly, his first reaction to hearing alarming sounds suggesting the woman next door is mistreating her child is to turn his stereo up and ignore them, but he later finds himself trying to talk to the little boy in the street and eventually even calling the police only to have his mistrust of authority confirmed when they admit they’re aware of the situation and will send someone but probably not until the next day.

The woman next door, a bar hostess who rolls in late and kicks her kid out of bed to sleep on the porch so she can entertain her gentlemen callers, drags up unwelcome memories of the woman who abandoned him to an orphanage. To be fair, Toru does not seem any more misogynistic than his sleazy friends but has a fairly utilitarian idea of “romance”, viewing it as a game of conquest either fast and loose like with the casual hookup or slow and deep as in his careful pursuit of Yuko. Gradually his separate pursuits of the two women become confused, leading Yuko to confront him over whatever it is that’s so obviously “wrong” with him. Upset as she is, Yuko sees the darkness in Toru but must also see the light, affirming that she has her darkness too but is willing to help him with his if only he gives her a little time and waits for her forgiveness.

Toru, meanwhile, is still fixated on his beloved gun which he has begun to carry about with him in a little bag for added frisson. Living largely without feeling, the thrill of carrying such an illicit object becomes a peculiar kind of drug, as does the intoxicating thought of the act of actually firing it and finally of taking a life. A wily police detective (Lily Franky) cuts straight through Toru’s smug facade to the gaping void beneath, trying to prevent him from jumping straight into the abyss but confident he will fail. As the detective predicted, Toru’s sense of reason continues to fragment leaving him unsure of what is real and what isn’t while he obsesses over the gun and what he might do with it but in a purely intellectual sense without considering the real world consequences of his actions. An exercise in style, The Gun is a noirish tale of existential ennui and dark obsession filled with nihilistic dread as its soulless hero commits to living his “worthless” life only to wilfully rob himself of the possibility of salvation.


The Gun screens as part of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival on June 30.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Han Dan (寒單, Huang Chao-liang, 2019)

Han Dan poster 1Military deity of wealth “Han Dan” is said to be afraid of the cold, so those who worship at his altar try to keep him warm with firecrackers during a ritual still practiced in the Eastern cities of Taiwan in which young men embody the god and brave the fiery assault in a daring show of their masculinity. Some volunteer to play the god for money, others for pride, and a few for atonement but there are some crimes you can’t simply burn away either with fire or by hate. The heroes of Huang Chao-liang’s Han Dan (寒單) bond through tragedy and try push past their pain through brotherhood but only one of them is aware their present relationship is founded on twisted hate fuelled revenge even as a genuine connection forms underneath.

Nerdy, earnest school-teacher-to-be Zheng-kun (George Hu Yuwei) has been fostering a lifelong crush on the girl next door, Xuan (Allison Lin), who went away to Taipei and only rarely returns home. Too shy to declare himself, he is enraged and hurt to discover that she has been secretly dating a guy they went to high school with – popular kid Ming-yi (Cheng Jen-shuo) who used to bully him for being only a trash collector’s son. Ming-yi is set to play Han Dan at this year’s Lantern Festival and his show of manly bravado is almost more than Zheng-kun can bear. In a moment of madness, he throws his lighter into a pile of firecrackers hoping to injure his rival, but Xuan runs to warn him and is caught in the crossfire. She dies from her injuries, leaving both men feeling guilty and bereft though no one else knows that it was Zheng-kun who started the fire. 

While Zheng-kun gives up on his teaching career and retreats into gloomy introspection, Ming-yi, who lost his hearing and the use of his hand in the accident, has become a drug addict and petty criminal. Riddled with guilt, Zheng-kun commits to “saving” his former enemy – locking him up while he goes cold turkey and then bringing him into the recycling business he’s started on his father’s land, but still harbours hate in his heart both for himself and for the man Ming-yi used to be.

“If only we were real friends” Zheng-kun mutters under his breath during an otherwise idyllic moment at the river. Learning more about his “blood brother”, Zheng-kun discovers that a toxic family situation is what made him such a terrible person in high school which might ordinarily have fostered compassionate forgiveness but only makes things worse for Zheng-kun who continues to hate Ming-yi to avoid having to think about how much he hates himself for what he did to Xuan. In an effort to atone, he forces himself through the Han Dan ritual year after year, scorching his body with firecrackers but finding little in the way of cathartic release.

“Feeling the pain means I’m alive” he tells a melancholy woman who seems to have had a thing for him ever since he was a shy student with a part-time job in the sleazy snack bar where she works. Now violent and angry, he’s not such a sensitive soul anymore but she loves him all the same and resents the intrusion of the late Xuan into their awkward relationship. Like the lovelorn hostess and the song they find themselves listening to, Zheng-kun too has a secret in his schoolbag that’s becoming impossible to keep but speaking it threatens to upset the carefully balanced semblance of a life that he’s forged with an oblivious, wounded Ming-yi.

Both men struggle to move on from the past, unable to forgive themselves not only for what happened to Xuan but for the choices they did or didn’t make in their youths that leave them afraid to move forward and locked into an awkward brotherhood bonded by love and hate in equal measure. A final cathartic explosion may provide a path towards a new life but only through shattering the fragile bond born of shared tragedy and irretrievable loss. A beautifully lensed morality tale, Han Dan is an acutely observed portrait of the corrosive effects of guilt and trauma but also a tragedy of misplaced male friendship as two lost souls find each other only in losing themselves as they battle the inescapable shadows of the past.


Han Dan screens as part of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival on June 30.

Original trailer (English subtitles)