Before Next Spring (如果有一天我将会离开你, Li Gen, 2021)

A naive exchange student finds a surrogate family while working at a Tokyo Chinese restaurant in Li Gen’s semi-autobiographical drama, Before Next Spring (如果有一天我将会离开你, rúguǒ yǒu yī tiān wǒ jiānghuì líkāi nǐ). Though it becomes obvious that almost everyone has come to Japan as a means of escape from personal troubles, the disparate collection of migrants eventually find solidarity with each other as they attempt to settle in to life in another culture while bonding with similarly troubled locals themselves excluded from mainstream society. 

Li Xiaoli seems to have chosen to come to Japan to find some release from a difficult family situation caused by his father’s illness. His mother had to give up work to look after him so the family have little money but Xiaoli is determined to make the most of his year abroad. When a stint in a supermarket doesn’t work out, his classmate Chiu (Qiu Tian) gets him a job at a Chinese restaurant where her friend/colleague Zhao (Niu Chao) also works. Though Zhao immediately takes against him perhaps out of jealousy, Xiaoli is taken under the wing of the restaurant’s manager, Wei (Qi Xi), who has been in Tokyo for some time but has recently had her application for permanent residence turned down in part because she is not married and has no children meaning the authorities are not satisfied about her longterm ties to Japan. 

Wei’s situation perhaps bears out the precarity of her life in Tokyo and the inability to fully feel at home experienced by many of the restaurant workers. Later it turns out that she is in need of an operation for uterine fibroids in part hoping to improve her chances of conceiving a child thought it’s unclear if her desire is solely to start a family or to give herself a better footing for getting her permanent resident card. Meanwhile the uncertainly undermines her relationship with chef Song (Song Ningfeng) who is undocumented and apparently in frequent contact with another woman who has her residence card already. The restaurant is frequently raided by police on the look out for anyone who might be working illegally, forcing Song to hide behind a fishtank in the basement like a criminal and giving rise to an atmosphere for persecution and anxiety. While the the pair are walking home one evening, they are hassled by a drunk man in the street who bumps into them and then demands they apologise. Song is visibility irritated by the humiliation of being forced to apologise to belligerent xenophobe and struggles to avoid losing his temper. Something similar occurs when a neighbour complains about the noise and then rings the police after hearing Song and Wei arguing, Xiaoli who was present at the time having to pose as Wei’s boyfriend flashing his legitimate student ID for the detectives. 

Xiaoli also makes a friend of the middle-aged Chinese teacher at their school, played in an extended cameo from Sylvia Chang, who hints that in some ways the experience hasn’t changed since she arrived at the tail end of the Bubble era. She recounts working three jobs but being delighted on buying everything she ever could want during department store sales. Only now she’s as rootless and dejected as Xiaoli. Her husband has returned to China, and now she’s living alone trying to redefine her reasons for coming to and staying in Japan. Middle-aged Chef Wan (Chen Yongzhong), who also experiences a unpleasant incident of being accused of groping a woman on a train because he was holding his aching stomach on the way to a hospital appointment, is feeling something similar having dreamed of bringing his family to join him only to now wonder if there’s really any point after so many years apart. 

The moody Zhao, meanwhile, is half-Japanese but has been all but abandoned by his parents and feels nothing for them other than resentment. Caught between two cultures, he insists on being called by the Japanese reading of his first name, Aoki, rather than the Chinese, Qingmu, and makes a point of talking to Xiaoli in Japanese rather than Mandarin despite being aware that his language skills are still undeveloped. He is in deep love with Xiaoli’s schoolfriend Chiu who works as a hostess in addition to her gig at the supermarket but is too diffident to say anything and though she seems to care for him she makes it clear she does not intend to wait.  

The sense of loneliness each of them feel is echoed in the melancholy tale of an older couple who run a hairdresser’s and had no children of their own, finding themselves unanchored in their old age but discovering a place for themselves at the Chinese restaurant. The only Japanese worker, Watanabe who develops a maternal relationship with Zhao, finds something similar while working a second job at a supermarket raising her children and trying to care for her elderly mother. Told over the course of a year with Xiaoli’s departure date already set, Li Gen’s lowkey drama is content with a lack of resolution that suggests time in motion marked by a series of partings some of which may be more permanent than others but each in their own way meaningful.


Before Next Spring screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (Traditional Chinese / English subtitles)

Images: © Huace Film & TV (Tianjin) Co., Ltd.

The Funeral (頭七, Shen Dan-Quei, 2022) 

“They’re your family, they won’t hurt you anyway” a little girl is consoled on suggesting that her relatives’ home may be haunted but it’s a statement which seems remarkably naive given the toxic situation at the centre of Shen Dan-Quei’s gothic drama, The Funeral (頭七, tóuqī). There may well be supernatural goings on, but the root of the problem remains familial exile and the outdated social codes which lead to it causing nothing but misery and loneliness for all concerned. 

Single mother Chun-hua (Selina Jen Chia-hsüan) hasn’t seen her family in a decade. She works several jobs trying to support herself and her daughter Qin-xuan (Bella Wu) who is seriously ill and on the list for a kidney transplant. When in the opening scene she begins to suspect a ghost has entered the convenience store where she works nights, it’s impossible to tell if she’s actually being haunted or is just tired and anxious. In any case, she’s later let go from that job after a co-worker complains about her falling asleep on shift which is right about when she gets a call from her estranged uncle (Nadow Lin) to let her know her grandfather, whom she had been very close to as a child, has passed away and she should come home for the funeral. Chun-hua is however reluctant because she evidently fell out with her authoritarian father (Chen Yi-Wen) when she left home and returning now is awkward in the extreme. 

Having set the scene with Chun-hua haunted in the city, Shen moves the action to the creepy gothic mansion where she grew up which does indeed seem to be a spooky place defined by its hostile atmosphere. Her father wastes no time telling her that she’s not welcome, but Chun-hua holds her ground and insists on being allowed to pay her respects to the only member of the family who seems to have shown her any affection. Later flashbacks suggest a concrete cause of the family’s disintegration, but then Chun-hua’s father seems to have taken against her even in childhood apparently refusing to allow her to celebrate her birthday with her sister seemingly also resentful of her for no clear reason. Though her mother clearly loves her, she cannot defy her husband and is unable to defend her daughter. The only one of the family privately happy to see Chun-hua, even her mother eventually tells her it would be better if she returned to Taipei as soon as possible given the awkwardness of the situation. 

Then again, as we later learn, she may have another reason in mind though this attempt to reframe the family’s animosity towards Chun-hua is a little problematic in suggesting they are cruel because they love her and want to her leave the toxic environment of the house to save her from its poisonous legacy. The grandfather may have been the only one to show her love, but it is his failings that have created division within the family causing some to feel rejected, excluded from the circle for no fault of their own. Her father’s rejection of her is in its own way similar, even if we later see him remorseful realising that his authoritarian parenting has cost him his daughter.

There may be a lot of supernatural action with the taoist priest permanently engaged in rituals over the grandfather’s body, but the darkness and resentment is purely human, born of loneliness and rejection in a lack of love and respect between those who are related by blood. Qin-xuan is at a disadvantage in knowing nothing of her extended family or mother’s relationship to them, she also rejected on arriving for the funeral. The place is indeed haunted beyond the scuttling figures that seem to catch their eyes and laden with the heavy atmosphere of the family’s inherent toxicity. But then through this extremely dark event, the relationship between mother and daughter is in its own way strengthened not least in Chuan-hua’s selfless determination to save her daughter from her own familial curse not to mention her medical precarity. Even so, the melancholy conclusion may hint that the toxic familial curse cannot be completely cured and is destined only to repeat itself in a perpetual cycle of hauntings. 


The Funeral screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (Traditional Chinese/English subtitles)

Images: © PINOCCHIO FILM CO. LTD

Mama Boy (初戀慢半拍, Arvin Chen, 2022)

A diffident young man gets a few lessons in love after falling for a middle-aged madam in Arvin Chen’s charming romantic dramedy, Mama Boy (初戀慢半拍, chūliàn mànbànpāi). The English-language title at least is a kind of pun, the awkward hero both described as a mother’s boy and falling for the mama of a hotel providing sexual services, but also hints at the awkwardness involved in his attempt to assert his independence at the comparatively late age of 30 by choosing to spend time with a mother the polar opposite of his own. 

Xiao-hong’s (Kai Ko) mother Meiling (Yu Tzu-yu) describes him as “shy”, though the mother of one of the girls she attempts to set him up with less charitably brands him “not normal”. Not normal is closer to the way Xiao-hong thinks of himself, wishing his mother would stop with the blind dates knowing that in his awkwardness he ends up making women feel uncomfortable and has no idea how to talk to them. His sleazy cousin/boss at the tropical fish shop where he works, insists on taking him to an exclusive brothel where he is instantly captivated by the middle-aged madam, Sister Lele (Vivian Hsu). Too shy to say anything, he continues returning to the hotel and hiring a sex worker to sit blankly in the room solely for the opportunity of exchanging a few words with her. 

The two of them are in a sense in similar positions, a mother frustrated by a wayward son, and a son frustrated by his possessive mother. Some of Xiao-hong’s attraction at least is maternal in seeking a freer parental hand. Unlike his mother, Lele boosts his confidence by making him believe that he’s alright and girls are going to like him, while taking him to cosy nightspots and teaching him the basics of romance. She meanwhile admires him as an ideal son the polar opposite of her own. Weijie (Fandy Fan) only contacts her to ask for money (his father no longer answers his calls) and seems to be involved in several dodgy get rich quick schemes the latest of which is selling knock off wine while he’s also got himself in trouble with loansharks. 

There is something a little uncomfortable in the contrast presented between the two women, the prim and proper mum Meiling raising a sweet, polite child like Xiao-hong who nevertheless lacks several important life skills because of her overparenting, while the child raised by former sex worker Lele is a no good two bit wise guy. Lele certainly seems to see Xiao-hong as a symbol of her failed maternity believing that his mother must have raised him well while she blames herself for her son’s failings feeling as if she couldn’t give Weijie the attention he deserved because she was a single mother who had to work to support him. 

Meanwhile they are also each lonely, Xiao-hong shy and isolated and Lele spending her nights drinking alone in bars being chatted up by sleazy men. Spending time together they develop a tentative bond of love and affection only to find their connection interrupted by Weijie and Meiling each of whom obviously disapprove. Meiling has a suitor of her own in a retired police academy professor she rejects out of a sense of repressive properness but eventually warms to after feeling she needs police assistance to reclaim her son from Lele realising that he’s stopped picking her up from work in order to give Lele lifts instead. 

Despite the romantic themes, both women are essentially reduced to the maternal through their experiences with good son Xiao-hong, Lele trying to patch things up with the wayward Weijie while Meiling realises that she’s overstepped the mark and and will have to let go a little to let Xiao-hong live his life or risk turning him into a perpetual mother’s boy who’ll be all alone once she’s gone. Xiao-hong meanwhile begins to gain confidence, asserting himself as an individual free of his mother’s control now no longer so diffident in talking to women thanks to the patient ministrations of Lele. With its quirky production design and fairytale atmosphere Chen’s tale of first love delayed is also one of unexpected connection and mutual acceptance that perhaps missteps in effectively negating the relationship at its centre but nevertheless has only sympathy for its lovelorn hero. 


Mama Boy screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Images: © 2022 Filmagic Pictures Co.

Hansan: Rising Dragon (한산: 용의 출현, Kim Han-min, 2022)

“A battle of the righteous against the unrighteous” is how Admiral Yi (Park Hae-il) frames his resistance against the Japanese invasion, not a war between nations but an attempt to push back against the authoritarian ruthlessness of Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s desire to conquer most of Asia in a bid to cement his historical legacy as his health continued to fail. Hansan: Rising Dragon (한산: 용의 출현, Hansan: Yongui Chulhyeon) is a kind of prequel to 2014’s The Admiral: Roaring Currents set five years earlier during Hideyoshi’s first campaign and pits the the wise and steadfast Admiral Yi against ambitious yet overconfident Japanese general Wakizaka* (Byun Yo-han). 

Wakizaka’s ruthless cruelty is not in dispute even as the film opens with him dispatching a report stating that he intends to destroy the Korean naval detachment harboured on the southern coast which it seems is all that stands between him and conquest of the peninsula in its capacity to disrupt his supply line. When some of his men return in defeat talking about a “Bokkaisen” with a dragon’s head spouting fire, Wakizaka orders them killed to stop them spreading rumours of supernatural threat among the troops. Retrieving what looks to be a dragon’s tooth from the ruined vessel he begins to realise there might be something their story but still doesn’t take the threat of Admiral Yi’s fleet very seriously. 


Admiral Yi meanwhile, who was wounded in the same battle pitching his bow and arrow against a Japanese rifleman, is plagued by dreams and anxiety while trying to sort out a strategy for dealing with the Japanese invasion. Some of his fellow officers think offence is the best defence and they should try to strike before Wakizaka is able to amass his forces, while others think they should play it safe and continue to defend the coast. He and his chief engineer are working on improvements to their turtle boat which had so spooked the Japanese soldiers at the previous battle but at the same time had its limitations. They don’t call it a turtle boat for nothing, on ramming into the Japanese vessel its dragonhead became lodged in the side locking the two boats in a deathly embrace. Yi suggests removing it, but as it turns out the ability to latch on to the enemy like a snapping turtle can also be an advantage if you know how to use it while figuring out how to get the best out of limited resources, along with managing interpersonal relations, turns out to be Wakizaka’s weakness. 

Ever ambitious, Wakizaka is distracted by petty rivalry with his co-general who disagrees with his strategies and eventually betrays him. A Korean-speaking Japanese retainer sent as a spy later decides to defect precisely because of this ruthless disregard for the lives of one’s fellow soldiers, struck by Yi’s personal presence on the battlefield and willingness to put himself in harm’s way to protect his men. Though he is originally viewed with suspicion by some, Junsa (Kim Sung-kyu) is embraced as a fellow soldier after joining the defence forces at an inland fortress and told that all that is necessary is that he have a “shared righteous spirit” fighting together against the “unrighteous” Japanese invasion. 

In any case, neither Wakizaka or the Japanese care very much about Korea all they’re doing is clearing a path to China. Meanwhile, the nervous king continues to travel North leaving his generals fearful he will defect to the Ming and they will end up losing their sovereignty to China if not to Japan. Wakizaka’s strategy is somewhat hubristic, leaving himself vulnerable in the rear as he pushes forward while using land tactics to fight a war at sea and thereby allowing Yi to set a trap for him perfectly tailored to his vain complacency. Wakizaka may have the numbers, but Yi has superior technology and the respect of his men. Quite fittingly the real Wakizaka was marooned on an island after the battle and had to survive on seaweed while waiting for his chance to escape. With plenty of spy action, double crossings and betrayals, Kim Han-min saves the big guns for the final naval battle which begins in ominous fog before exploding in all out war but still makes clear that the battle is on the side of righteousness and that Yi owes his victory to human solidarity and compassion (leaving aside his torture of suspected spies) and Wakizaka his defeat to hubris and cruelty. 


Hansan: Rising Dragon screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival and is in US cinemas now courtesy of Well Go USA.

*these subtitles use Wakizaka but his name is sometimes also romanised as Wakisaka.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Images: Courtesy of Well Go USA Entertainment

Confession (자백, Yoon Jong-seok, 2022)

An accused man and the woman sent to defend him battle over the elusive nature of objective truth in Yoon Jong-seok’s steely psychological thriller, Confession (자백, Jabaek). A remake of the Spanish film Contratiempo, Confession is nevertheless the latest in a longline of Korean films critical of expanding chaebol culture and the utter entitlement of the elite who assume they have the right to do whatever they want because their money, status, and connections protect them from any potential consequences of their actions. Then again as the lawyer tells her client, salvation is never painless. 

Min-ho (So Ji-sub) had something of a golden life. Married to the daughter of the chairman of a large corporation, he was a rising star of cybersecurity who had even been named IT businessman of the year but was about to throw it all away through a lengthy affair with a woman, Se-hee (Nana), whom he has now been accused of killing. You’d have to admit, he had a motive and the circumstantial evidence against him is convincing yet Min-ho claims that he didn’t do it and there was a third party involved in this otherwise locked room mystery. 

Much of the film takes place in a claustrophobic wooden cabin in the woods all but cut off by heavy snow in which Min-ho has chosen retreat after his chairman father-in-law managed to get his arrest warrant canceled. What emerges is a psychological battle between Ms. Yang (Kim Yunjin), the fancy lawyer hired by the chairman, and Min-ho who have somewhat opposing goals. Min-ho wants her to sign the documents confirming her as his legal counsel and therefore making anything he might have said subject to privilege while she presses him for the location of vital evidence while trying to expose the objective truth behind Min-ho’s selective testimony. 

Neither of them are reliable narrators, Ms. Yang coming up with potential scenarios and at times implying she has evidence that she does not in order to push Min-ho towards revealing the facts of the case. As she says, a lawyer can only help you if you’ve been rigorously honest because she in turn needs to construct a narrative that can undercut the prosecution’s case. The truth might in one sense be irrelevant, as she implies when advising that they frame Se-hee as the villain suggesting that she orchestrated a plot to blackmail Min-ho over their affair in a mix of vengeance and greed when he decided to end their relationship because he could no longer bear the guilt of cheating on his wife. 

Yet there are further transgressions in Min-ho’s past aside from his affair and it’s the attempt to cover them up more than the affair itself which has landed him in so much trouble. As he tells the lawyer, he doesn’t just want to avoid prison but is set on total exoneration unwilling to accept any kind of responsibility for what is currently happening to him. Because of his wealth and status he believes he is not subject to the same laws as everyone else and that even if he had killed Se-hee as his lawyer is beginning to suspect, he would still not be guilty of any crime. “What’s important is to survive” he tells the lawyer revealing his inner ruthlessness along with the complacent reckless streak which might hinder her attempts to defend him. 

There’s no denying that the film’s earliest twists are obvious and heavily foreshadowed but like a seasoned lawyer it is also laying a trap that leaves its final revelations extremely satisfying in implying a kind of justice at least is possible in this inherently corrupt society where dodgy lawyers and elite privilege go hand in hand to destroy the lives of ordinary people. Dark in its implications, the cat and mouse game between lawyer and client who each lie in an attempt to expose the truth hints at the malleability of what is considered to be “true” in the way in which we all construct the narrative of our lives to suit ourselves while denying the realities of others. There may be no such thing as objective truth, but guilt and complacency will still come for you in the end. Visually referencing Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, Yoon’s tense psychological drama is in its own way hopeful in its reeling conclusion even if as the lawyer says salvation is never painless. 


Confession screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Broken Commandment (破戒, Kazuo Maeda, 2022)

Toson Shimazaki’s 1906 novel The Broken Commandment (破戒, Hakai) has been adapted for the screen several times, each version taking a slightly different approach to the source material. A new constitution film, Keisuke Kinoshita’s Apostasy (1948) focuses more keenly in the necessity of abandoning latent feudalism to create a truly free society of social equality, while Kon Ichikawa’s The Outcast (1962) essentially tells a coming out story in which the hero finds a kind of liberation in the embrace of his identity and resolves to fight for the rights of others forced to live in shame by an oppressive social order. 

One could say that each adaptation in its way reflects the time in which it was made. Kazuo Maeda’s The Broken Commandment focuses more on the threat of rising militarism and an increasingly authoritarian social order than the hero’s internalised conflict between the necessity of keeping the promise he made to his father never to reveal his roots as a member of the burakumin class and the knowledge that not to do so is to remain complicit in the oppression of others like him. 

Set during the Russo-Japanese War of the early 1900s, the film opens with a scene in which the hero, Ushimatsu (Shotaro Mamiya), is woken by a commotion in the inn at which he is staying. Another of the guests in town to receive medical treatment has been outed as a burakumin, a member of a near untouchable class. The woman running the inn apologises profusely and explains that all the tatami mats throughout the building now need to be replaced while following the elderly gentleman ejected from the building out onto the street throwing salt on the ground to purify it from his presence. Ushimatsu’s problem is that he is himself a burakumin who has kept his heritage secret and is living an ordinary life as a teacher in a small rural town. The school which he works for is extremely conservative and aligned with the proto-militarist conservative right which is currently in ascendency with the war in full swing. Ushimatsu is already treated with a degree of suspicion not of his class background but his socialist views which advocate for peace, freedom, and equality. 

Yet it’s clear that not even he has been fully able to relinquish feudalistic thinking. Though he urges some of his pupils that it is alright to play together despite the class difference which exists between them explaining that the class system ended with the Meiji Restoration, he feels beginning a relationship with the adopted daughter of a temple where he is currently living, Shiho (Anna Ishii), would be inappropriate not just because he is a burakumin and it would be unfair to marry without telling her which he cannot do because of the commandment from his father, but because she is descended from a former samurai family. As we can see social class is largely distinct from wealth, a corrupt local politician marrying the daughter of a burakumin who has become wealthy but keeping her origins secret while the old man ejected from the inn was also someone of means dressing in elegant Western suits in contrast to most in the impoverished village who still wear kimono. Wealth did not free the burakumin from prejudice, while even in poverty Shiho and her father Kazama (Kazuya Takahashi), who is about to fired by the school so they won’t have to pay his pension, are still thought of as members of the nobility. The old ideas don’t disappear so easily even among those who know them to be mistaken. 

Yet as Ushimatsu’s mentor Inoko (Hidekazu Mashima) says, even if the burakumin were to be accepted by society prejudice itself would not die merely migrate to another minority. In Inoko, a socialist writer who proudly comes out and says he is a burakumin, or “eta” meaning pariah in the language of the time, Ushimatsu discovers a second father who grants him the courage to free himself from his feudal vision of filiality and break his father’s commandment to better help those like him and resist the mounting authoritarianism of the education system in which boys in particular are being brainwashed that they are little more than tools for imperialist expansion. In his impassioned speech to the students, Ushimatsu tells them that he wants them to grow up to be people who can think for themselves rather than blindly accept their programming, the kids seemingly getting the message in defying slimy militarist plant Katsuno to see Ushimatsu on his way when he decides he must leave the village to foster freedom elsewhere. 

Unlike previous adaptations, the film does not much go into how he plans to do that save his intention to find a position as a school teacher in the city and educate the young away from prejudice. Breaking his father’s commandment is in its own way a way of breaking with the past, refusing to be complicit with an oppressive social order still bound up with feudalistic notions of class hierarchy which all point towards the emperor and reinforce the increasing authoritarianism of the militarists. Speaking to the rising nationalism of the contemporary society, Maeda’s adaptation positions education as the best weapon against an oppressive social order but also insists that its hero must first free himself from his own internalised shame and outdated ways of thinking. 


Broken Commandment screens at Asia Society 28th July as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

© 2022 BROKEN COMMANDMENT Film Partners

Shin Ultraman (シン・ウルトラマン, Shinji Higuchi, 2022)

The classic tokusatsu hero rises again to rescue kaiju-plagued Japan from geopolitical tensions and internal bureaucracy in Shinji Higuchi’s Shin Ultraman (シン・ウルトラマン). Scripted by Hideaki Anno, Shin Ultraman shares much in common with Shin Godzilla which the pair co-directed but is also a much more obvious homage to the world of classic tokusatsu or “special effects” franchises which became cult TV hits from the 1960s onwards and have remained popular with children and adults alike throughout Asia. 

This new iteration takes place in a world in which kaiju attacks have become commonplace, so much so that there is a specialised government department, the SSSP, dedicated to dealing with them. Led by determined veteran Tamura (Hidetoshi Nishijima), the team do not engage with the giant monsters directly but are responsible for research and strategy quickly trying to work out what kind of kaiju they’re dealing with, what the dangers associated with it may be, and where it’s weaknesses lie so they can figure out a way to stop it. Just when it looks like an electricity-guzzling lizard monster is about to do some serious damage, a robot-like giant humanoid arrives and saves the day. The team are very grateful to the heroic defender they name Ultraman, but are puzzled that he seems to be aware of all their research while otherwise missing the connection that their near silent colleague Kaminaga (Takumi Saitoh) always seems to be mysteriously absent every time Ultraman arrives.  

At heart, Shin Godzilla had been a satire on government bureaucracy and a mediation on the response to the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Shin Ultraman might not be so pointed but still has a few bones to pick with the political machine as the team’s boss at HQ moans about the need to keep buying fancy weapons from the Americans (and making sure it’s the Defence Ministry that foots the bill) while cynically suggesting that the government is keen to use the kaiju crisis as leverage to further its policy goal of nuclear re-armament. Meanwhile, it’s also clear that for some reason kaiju attacks only happen in Japan and the International community largely sees them as a Japanese issue which they have to deal with alone, but as soon as Ultraman turns up and is thought to be extraterrestrial everyone is suddenly interested. 

As it transpires these geopolitical divisions are incredibly useful to another extraterrestrial visitor, Zarab (Kenjiro Tsuda), who plans to sow discord among nations so that humanity will destroy itself thereby, ironically, preventing an intergalactic war between planets who may be tempted to fight amongst themselves over the potential enslavement of humanity as valuable bioweapons. Aware of Zarab’s power, the government is manipulated into signing an uneven treaty with him in order to be first out of the gate and gain an advantage over other nations who, for reasons of self preservation, are also keen to ensure no one has sole access to new alien technologies and emissaries. Asked why he picked Japan, all Zarab can come up with it that he happened to land there which is quite a coincidence though he also has a vested interest in taking out Ultraman, the only force capable of resisting him. 

Even so, according to Zarab, the kaiju plague is humanity’s doing in having awakened sleeping monsters through environmental destruction. Hailing from the Planet of Light which has strict rules about what he’s supposed to be doing, Ultraman longs to understand humanity having merged with a human he accidentally killed who had dedicated his life to saving others. What he gains is a sense of communal responsibility along with a desire to care for what he sees as, essentially, babies someway behind his own planet in terms of evolution and in need of guidance. What he doesn’t want to do is endanger their “autonomous progression” by solving all their problems for them, so in grand tokusatsu fashion its up to the team to engineer their own solution in addition to deciding what they will do with this new technology using it for good or ill. Being buddies is all about trust, after all. Higuchi’s composition borders on the avant-garde recalling both that of the legendary Akio Jissoji and those more often associated with anime and manga rather than live action while the effects, even those utilising CGI, are pleasantly nostalgic with retro mono explosions and the iconic ringing of laser beams. Heading in a melancholy philosophical direction in its final moments, Shin Ultraman does at least suggest that the best weapons against a kaiju attack are teamwork and mutual trust especially if one of your friends is an all powerful being from another galaxy. 


Shin Ultraman screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Images: © 2022 TSUBURAYA PRODUCTIONS CO., LTD. / TOHO CO., LTD. / khara, Inc. © TSUBURAYA PRODUCTIONS

Offbeat Cops (異動辞令は音楽隊!, Eiji Uchida, 2022)

A maverick lone wolf comes to understand that it’s all about harmony after getting demoted to the police band in Eiji Uchida’s procedural dramedy, Offbeat Cops (異動辞令は音楽隊!,  Ido Jirei wa Ongakutai!). Offbeat is definitely one way to describe Naruse (Hiroshi Abe) who has not only been taken off the streets but is constantly out of step not just with the times, but with his colleagues and family members too. Yet like so many in his position, he thinks it’s the world that’s wrong only later realising that creating a harmonious society is another means of effective policing. 

That realisation is however hard won. An unreconstructed ‘70s cop, Naruse thinks being a detective’s all about intimidation. He reads the paper during morning briefings and ignores advice from his superiors, insisting that it’s legwork that counts in modern day policing while privately convinced that a repeat offender he failed to catch five years previously is linked to a current spate of burglaries targeting the older generation in which scammers ring up claiming to be from the crime prevention squad and convince elderly people to tell them where the valuables are before breaking in, tying them up, and robbing the place. Barging into a suspect’s home without a warrant and threatening violence, he tries to prove his theory but is soon hauled before his bosses and told there’s been a complaint about him so he’s being demoted to the police band. 

One criticism he’d repeatedly received was that he had no ability to work as a team, always heading off to do his own thing rather than following the investigative line of the offer in charge. His demotion to the band is then ironic, especially as he’s being asked to play the drums, given that in order to succeed he’ll have to learn to march to the common beat. But being demoted eats away at his sense of self. If he’s not a cop then what is he and why are they making him waste his time on music when there are real bad guys out there cheating vulnerable people out of their life savings. Having divorced two years previously his relationship with teenage daughter Noriko (Ai Mikami) is already strained while he is also sole carer to his elderly mother (Mitsuko Baisho) who is suffering from dementia and keeps asking for his ex-wife and late father. He often snaps at her, cruelly reminding her of the reality rather than trying to be mindful of her constant confusion. 

What he realises while playing in the band is that wading in all fists blazing is not the only way to fight crime. After encountering a cheerful old lady who enjoyed his drum playing and tells him that she looks forward to hearing the police band play, he comes to understand that people want different things from their police force and community support is just as much a part of that as chasing crooks in the street. Though he has been relegated to the band, many of his colleagues are expected to do their regular jobs too and have familial responsibilities and petty resentments of their own. Meanwhile, his former partner begins to reflect on Naruse’s dogged love of justice in his absence taking on more than a few of his characteristics in his determination to catch the criminal, realising that perhaps it’s alright to bend the rules a little if the occasion calls as long as you don’t take it too far. 

Jamming with his new colleagues Naruse finally begins to realise the importance of group harmony, acknowledging his faults and apologising for them while rebuilding his relationships with friends and family. He may be wearing a different uniform, but he’s still a policeman and as long as the bad guys get caught it doesn’t matter by who. The big wigs may think the police band’s not really important, but as the banner says it helps build a bridge between the police force and the community which in turn helps prevent crime and leads to a happier, more harmonious society. Then again if you turn that around it might sound a little authoritarian in insisting that Naruse must learn to ignore the beat of his own drum to march to that of the collective while presenting an idealised view of the police’s place in the community, but it does indeed seem that he has managed to find a better accommodation with himself no longer so angry or intimidating but understanding of others and their troubles while rededicating himself to a more compassionate policing. 


Offbeat Cops screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Images: ©2022 “Offbeat Cops” Film Partners

Preman: Silent Fury (Randolph Zaini, 2021)

“Sooner or later, you gotta do the right thing” the girlfriend of a complicit policeman tries to explain while he rationalises that in reality there’s little difference between a policeman and a gangster and even he’s too afraid to stand up to a dictatorial local thug deeply tied to an ambitious politician. Like many recent films from Indonesia, Randolph Zaini’s Preman: Silent Fury is a tale of toxic masculinity, societal prejudice, and a bullying culture but also one of fear and complicity in which a marginalised man must face his childhood trauma in order to save his son from suffering the same fate. 

Sandi (Khiva Iskak), who lost his hearing in childhood, is a member of a vigilante preman gang, Perkasa. The preman view themselves as defenders of justice, but in reality are feared and despised by the world around them for their intimidating and violent behaviour. Sandi’s gang was once ruled by the wise Haji (Egi Fedly) who had lofty ideals of defending his local community from an oppressive authority but he’s recently been ousted by the authoritarian Guru (Kiki Narendra) who is no better than a thug willing to do the dirty work of a city politician in return for power and influence. His first job is clearing a local slum by force, insisting its residents leave but offering them no safe place to go. When Haji tries to resist, Sandi’s young son Pandan (Muzakki Ramdhan) witnesses his murder and thereby places a target on his back and that of his father as they try to figure out how to survive Guru’s increasing ruthlessness. 

Dressed in a military outfit, Guru is an allegory for lingering authoritarianism visually recalling historical dictators and is introduced while giving a bombastic speech which Sandi is obviously unable to hear yet goes along with anyway. Sandi’s deafness is in one sense aligned with his complicity in that he is literally unable to hear the reality of world around him but is also linked back to the childhood trauma which robbed him of his voice. An early failure to do the right thing, siding with the bullies out of fear rather than standing up for his friend who was being taunted with homophobic slurs, set him on a life long path of complicity too afraid of the gang and of preman culture to ever be able to leave it. 

Yet his disability also leaves him marginalised with few other directions in which to turn considering that disabled people struggle to find work in a society that has little accommodation for difference. Hairdresser/assassin Ramon (Revaldo) who refers to himself exclusively in the third person and peppers his speech with French, points out that everyone viewed Medusa as the villain but the real villains were Poseidon who raped her, Athena who cursed her, and Perseus who killed her rather than Medusa herself. Ramon is also on the end of a series of homophobic slurs from one of the Perkasa thugs who’d been trying to talk to one of his colleagues, who wants to be a musical theatre star, about erectile disfunction but struggled to get his point across while using a series of broad euphemisms out of embarrassment hinting at the hidden costs of societal repression. “Ramon is a mirror reflecting the ugliness of the world” the assassin explains, wielding his scissors of vengeance on behalf of a corrupt authority. 

As the policeman’s girlfriend points out, the reason the policeman has ended up in trouble is that he didn’t help Sandi when he asked him, just like Sandi didn’t help his friend, because he was too afraid to stand up to a thuggish bully. At some point you have to do the right thing, she reminds him, and only by refusing to be intimidated by Guru can they hope to escape his violence along with the threat he presents which allows him to dominate their society. Impressively shot given its low budget origins, Zaini’s playful drama features a series of well choreographed action sequences culminating in a striking avant-garde conclusion in which Sandi faces off against fox-suited villains, spraying psychedelic neon paint and exorcising the pain of his childhood trauma while freeing his son not just literally but mentally from an oppressive and bullying society. 


Preman: Silent Fury screens at Asia Society 23rd July as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival. It will also be released in the US later in the year courtesy of Well Go USA.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Images: Courtesy of Well Go USA Entertainment

Grown-ups (わたし達はおとな, Takuya Kato, 2022)

“You’re a grown-up. If something’s wrong you gotta handle it” the passive aggressively condescending hero of Takuya Kato’s Grown-ups (わたし達はおとな, Watashitachi wa Otona) chastises, but what even really is being “grown-up” when you find yourself in a situation which is emotionally difficult and will define the future course of your life. Shot in a claustrophobic 4:3 and told in a non-linear fashion, Kato’s intense drama lays bare the inequalities of a patriarchal society in which in a sense there are no real grown-ups because no one is ever comfortable enough with anyone else to be able to speak their real feelings honestly. 

This becomes a particular problem for college student Yumi (Mai Kiryu) who discovers that she is pregnant but is uncertain as to who the father might be having had a one night stand during the time her live-in boyfriend Naoya (Kisetsu Fujiwara) had broken up with her. Yumi immediately tells Naoya that there’s a chance the baby isn’t his, but remains otherwise reticent unwilling to talk about what might have happened while filled with an internal panic. Naoya thinks he’s being grown-up about the situation by deciding to accept responsibility given the probability that he is the father but despite pledging that he would accept the baby even if it turned out he wasn’t can’t stop trying to pressure Yumi into a DNA test for peace of mind. 

The irony is that even Naoya, who was Yumi’s first sexual partner, refused to wear a condom and joked about contraception before making her go on the pill when he moved in with her. Later we learn that the one night stand violated her consent by again refusing to wear a condom and ignoring her objections, later joking about it that the chances of conception are incredibly small while making it clear that men in general don’t consider pregnancy as something that happens to them and because, as one of Yumi’s friends puts it, they only chase “innocent” girls they don’t seem to worry about the possibility of contracting an STI. Meanwhile, Yumi is constantly stalked by a fellow student she briefly dated who presents her with a memory book of their relationship and is always creepily hanging around waiting to give her gifts, but all her friends can seem to talk about is boyfriends implying that a bad boyfriend might be better than none. 

Yet Yumi seems to have intimacy issues that run even deeper, for some reason not even telling Naoya that her mother has passed away leaving him to think she has run away from their problems by returning home just when he’s ready to tell her his decision about their future. When her father asks about boyfriends she brushes the question off though perhaps partly because she’s not quite sure about her relationship status with Naoya or what she’s going to do about the baby. She calls her friend to hear a friendly voice after hearing her mother has died but gets little sympathy, the same friend later abruptly hanging up on her after getting a boyfriend of her own while knowing of Yumi’s romantic troubles. 

Then again, it’s hard to know whether Naoya was really interested in her or in her lovely duplex apartment. When they started dating he was still living with his ex and it’s obvious that Yumi fully conforms to the feminine ideal taking care of all the domestic tasks while it isn’t even clear if Naoya is contributing in any way to the household. The film both begins and ends with Yumi making breakfast, firstly toasting the last slice of bread for Naoya while suffering with what turns out to be morning sickness, and finally making herself something to eat in the early light of dawn. Naoya says he’s give up on his dreams of working in theatre to get a regular job, again conforming to an outdated patriarchal ideal, but of course resents it particularly because he doubts the child is his while Yumi isn’t really sure she wants to go through with it either for some of the same reasons but is swayed by Naoya’s determination to make all their decisions for them unable to say out loud that she might not be ready to become a mother. 

Naoya is always trying to be grown-up about everything, but more often than not his understanding approach is partway towards passive aggressive control in insisting that Yumi is being childish in her anxiety and confusion while simultaneously avoiding having to admit that he isn’t really ready either. Early in their relationship he breaks up with her by simply returning her apartment key and refusing to elaborate, failing to treat her with respect or maturity and once again leaving her to deal with the fallout of their relationship all alone. Then again, Yumi’s determination to convince him that green peas are good may signal that the relationship was always doomed when they couldn’t even reach a grown-up understanding over something as trivial as taste in veg. A raw examination of what it is to be young and faced with a decision that will define the rest of your life, Kato’s naturalistic drama perhaps suggests that it never really gets any easier to say how you really feel when you feel that someone is judging you all the way. 


Grown-ups screens at Lincoln Center 23d July as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Images: ©2022“Grown-ups” Production Committee