Terrorizers (青春弒戀, Ho Wi Ding, 2021)

A collection of youngsters is drawn into a dangerous web of simmering violence in Ho Wi Ding’s Taipei-set drama, Terrorizers (青春弒戀, qīngchūn shì liàn). The film may share its name with an Edward Yang classic, but it is very clearly society that is the terroriser in this instance from toxic masculinity and social conservatism to youthful isolation, video games, and pornography. The film seems to ask if it’s ever really possible to move on from the past and discovers that it may not be though some may be prepared to help carry your baggage as they travel towards the future so long as they know what’s in it. 

The youngsters are brought together by the ominous presence of Ming Liang (Austin Lin Bo-Hong), an isolated young man who barely speaks and spends all his time playing video games. It’s him we see dressed in full ninja garb attacking a young woman, Yu Fang (Moon Lee), with a katana at the train station only for her boyfriend Xiao Zhang (J.C. Lin Cheng-Hsi) to heroically throw himself in front of her to fight Ming Liang off. 

Later a dejected middle-aged woman Ming Liang befriends ironically tells him that guy who protects his girlfriend is a real man, working the wound of Ming Liang’s bruised masculinity and causing him to double down on his frequent insistence that he can protect women, though later he indeed does on separating precocious teen Kiki (Yao Ai-Ning) from the previously diffident best friend who tried to assault her. Having given up on Yu Fang he begins stalking a woman from her acting class, Monica (Annie Chen Ting-Ni), whose admittedly no good ex boyfriend he later beats up assuming it will buy him white knight credits as a protector in the shadows when in reality he’s a total creep who cloned the key to her apartment and has been hiding in her wardrobe later driven into a frenzy by the irony of watching Yu Fang and Monica, the two women he wanted, deciding they’d rather be with each other. 

Part of Ming Liang’s problem is a sense of parental abandonment, something he shares with Yu Fang whose mother abandoned her when young while her relationship with her father, who has recently remarried, has always been strained. After his parents’ divorce, Ming Liang moved in with Yu Fang’s politician father after being palmed off off by his own, the implication being that he has never really been shown parental love or given any guidance about how to live in the world save that he gleaned from the violent video games he constantly plays along with voyeuristic pornography. 

Yu Fang and Ming Liang are attempting to escape the legacy of parental failure, but Monica is left with a much more recent dilemma in her history as an early cam girl named Missy, a character created by her ex, David, who has since moved on. The more Monica tries to chase her dreams, the more her past comes out to haunt her with creepy men for some reason making a point of telling her they saw her sex tape while on some occasions actually playing it for her on their phone. Hoping to crush her spirit, David tells her that she’ll always be Missy, unable to escape the social stigma of having participated in a pornographic video, while she and Yu Fang are subject to a public shaming when a tape of them goes viral allowing the authorities to all but justify Ming Liang’s attack on Yu Fang on the grounds that she stole his girlfriend and therefore was in the wrong as if such feudalistic behaviour could ever be permissible. 

Yu Fang finds herself terrorised by the media storm of the 24hr news cycle, her new life with Xiao Zhang in jeopardy while she feels ever more isolated realising that her father cares less for her wellbeing than the optics in the light of his ongoing political campaign. Ming Liang meanwhile is forever reminding people that his father is rich and influential as if his misuse of his status is a direct rebellion against it and the parents he feels abandoned him. The fact that the news essentially reframes the slashing incident as a defence of heterosexual love, demonising same sex relationships, only emphasises the tyranny of outdated social prejudice and misogyny as Yu Fang becomes the villain and Ming Liang the victim entirely ignoring his predatory stalking of Monica and otherwise disturbing behaviour. It may not be possible to effectively move on from the past, overcome the legacy of parental abandonment and develop the ability to trust in others, but there may be less destructive ways to take the past with you if only in finding someone willing to share your burden. 

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

Festival trailer (English subtitles)

Images: © changheFilms 2021

I am More (모어, Lee Il-ha, 2021)

I am More (모어, More) is as much a mission statement as it is a simple piece of biographical information in Lee Il-ha’s musical documentary following transgender drag artist More. Born in Korea but based in Japan since 2000, Lee’s previous documentaries focused on the position of Zainichi Koreans but with I am More he explores the position of minorities within Korea itself while providing a platform for More to express herself fluently through music and performance art. 

More describes herself as having a love hate relationship with drag which she has been performing for over 20 years in the bars and clubs of Itaewon. She relates that she still has a gun in her heart and that going to perform is like going on duty while throwing shade on the Western customers at her bar and their $1 tips. Even so, drag was a liberating experience for her on arriving in the city in which attitudes towards gender norms were much stricter than they had been in the small town where she grew up even if they had not exactly been much warmer there. Embarking on her studies at Seoul University of the Arts, a fellow student punched her in the face and told her to lose her feminity while when forced to do military service she was briefly placed in a mental hospital. 

More’s warmhearted and completely accepting mother claims that there was no bullying during More’s childhood and that nobody thought much of her atypical gender presentation, but More also reveals that she once tried to take her own life during high school but survived and in fact went straight to an exam to avoid getting in trouble for missing classes. Her teacher also recalls another student whom he describes as “effeminate” and apologises for the way they were treated by their classmates while More seems to have developed a friendship with one of the bullies who tormented her but also showed her kindness. He reflects on the various ways their perspective was “limited” by their small-town upbringing remembering how small he felt on going to the city and realising he was no longer at the top of the social hierarchy. 

The situation may be very different than it was during More’s childhood, but the LGBTQ+ community still faces prejudice and discrimination from religious groups who are seen protesting pride events and harassing attendees while a patriotic song from the era of dictatorship singing of “our Korea” ironically plays in the background. More is in a longterm relationship with a Russian man, Zhenya, whose immigration status is precarious as he is stuck on a job seeker’s visa. Same sex marriage is not recognised in Korea meaning that he is unable to apply as a spouse and is in the midst of trying to gain Korean citizenship. Meanwhile despite having a PhD in chemistry he is currently unemployed and losing himself in the comparatively tranquil world of Pokémon Go where he says the monsters are kinder than people. Though they have been together a long time, some of it on and off as Zhenya later implies, Lee follows More as she introduces Zhenya to her parents who welcome him with open arms and make sure to invite him to all the major celebrations as More’s partner seeing as he obviously has no other family in Korea to spend them with. 

Meanwhile, Lee spends much of the documentary focussing on More’s rehearsals for a show in New York celebrating the 50th anniversary of Stonewall during which she develops a friendship with Hedwig and the Angry Inch star John Cameron Mitchell who later travels to Korea and remarks on how difficult it can be to be yourself in a conformist society where individuality can sometimes be read as selfishness. Hedwig in a sense brings things full circle with a reference back to More’s own Wig in a Box moment discovering drag in Itaewon while Lee is careful to give her her own space to express herself as she lip syncs to iconic pop songs and performs poetry and performance art in elaborate outfits at Seoul landmarks as if beckoning towards a new and more inclusive culture. A vibrant portrait of a queer artist who is absolutely herself I am More more than lives up to its name in its electric advocation for a world of love and joy. 

I am More screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival. It will also be screening in London on 13th November as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

Festival trailer (dialogue free)

Though the film’s subtitles refer to More as “he”, she has confirmed with festival organisers that she prefers feminine pronouns.

Images: ⓒ2021 EXPOSED FILM, All Rights Reserved

Virgin Blue (不要再見啊,魚花塘, Niu Xiaoyu, 2021)

A young woman becomes lost in a confusingly timeless world of fractured memory in Niu Xiaoyu’s ethereal drama, Virgin Blue (不要再見啊,魚花塘, bùyào zàijiàn ā, yúhuā táng). As realities continue to shift and blur, we begin to wonder if two women are really one as seen through the memories of another and what we are experiencing is the confusion of dementia or perhaps a dying dream in which the heroine tries to put the pieces of her memory back in the right place only to end up at a mythical lake populated by those no longer able to live in the “real” world. 

Nominally Yezi (Ye Zi) is a recently graduated student returned home to stay with the widowed grandmother (Shengzhi Zheng) who raised her after her parents divorce over the summer, yet we often see her taking her grandmother’s place, finishing her knitting, while alternately rebelling against childhood’s end in insisting that she doesn’t want to grow up, has no interest in a relationship, and most of all wants her grandmother to go on knitting sweaters for her. At a hospital appointment, the pregnant nurse who in someways at least stands in for her own mother simultaneously her criticises for being unattached at such a “late” age and cites her celibacy as a possible explanation for her youthful appearance. 

We see that Yezi walks with a limp, she is diagnosed with hypoplasia at the hospital appointment, and that grandma has bad knees which she is later treated for by a buddhist nun in a dream. It’s grandma who keeps fearing that she’s forgetting but Yezi who isn’t clear with her, first of all telling her that grandpa died in 2020 (which is the current year) and then that it’s only 2013. Grandma claims that she always feels out of place, as if she were in someone else’s home and never her own which might in a sense be true. At times, the meta voice of the director can be heard off camera sharing stories of her own such as a traumatic dream in which her grandparents came to rescue her after youthful heartbreak but her grandmother got stabbed by a mystery attacker on the way home leaving her feeling that if only she were stronger and more independent, she would not have needed rescuing and grandma would be alive. Could the director be the “real” Yezi and her film counterpart a search for self in the memories of her grandparents? Perhaps so, as the image of her parents seems to drift into the scene along with potential friends and suitors who may or may not be figments of her imagination.

Even so her eventual destination is a surreal fantasyland peopled by a runaway princess who escaped from the real world after a failed elopement, a man who might once have been a kidnapped boy dressed in a bear suit, and a series of tiny dancers who perform elaborate dance routines for classic Chinese pop songs. The princess, Jingjing, and the bear describe themselves as monsters, marginalised to the lake, while monstrous is also how grandma describes the vision of herself as a dementia sufferer worried that even Yezi would reject her. The pregnant nurse and her colleague discuss the new trend for caesarean births, the colleague advising her to see a fortune teller and choose a good day in order to ensure that the child will not bring bad luck on its parents. 

Through it all, Yezi has visions of herself as a child with her late grandfather as if looking for childhood safety and comfort while trying to reorient herself as an adult. The fantasy world with its larger than life, childlike designs and nostalgic tunes is somewhere between fairytale safety and a kind of limbo from which Yezi is either eventually released or fully condemned as she looks back us, breaking the fourth wall to shake her head as if in warning. Infinitely strange yet also charming even in its confusions, Virgin Blue has a kind of melancholy warmth as Yezi tries to reintegrate this fragmenting world while processing her grief perhaps even for her self along with interrogating her past before ending on a note of joyful celebration as the monsters of Yuhua pond dance in the daylight to an unexpected rendition of Jun Togawa’s 1988 hit Daitenshi no you ni (Like an Angel).

Virgin Blue screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival where it was presented in partnership with CineCina.

Trailer (dialogue free)

Jun Togawa – Daitenshi no you ni (Like an Angel)

Images © Yu Tang Films (Anhui)

Reclaim (一家之主, CJ Wang, 2022)

An ordinary middle-aged woman begins to wonder what it’s all been for when dealing with her insensitive, authoritarian husband, distant children, and the sacrifices she continually made to make others happy in CJ Wang’s touching family drama, Reclaim (一家之主, yījiāzhīzhǔ). The Chinese title, master of the house, is in its way ironic in the various ways in which Lan-xin (Nina Paw Hee-ching) is expected to shoulder all of the domestic responsibility with none of the control, though she is indeed attempting to reclaim something of herself as a woman and an individual as distinct from being someone’s, wife, mother, friend, or teacher. 

Lan-xin wanted to study art in Paris, but she got married young and started family and ever since then has led a conventional life doing what she thought to be right thing. Now, however, with her husband David (Kou Hsi-Shun) recently retired and both her children grown up she’s wondering a little what it’s all been for especially as David is a chauvinistic throwback who belittles her work as an art teacher while harping on about ways to make money patiently waiting for his collection of antique teapots to rise in value. Now that her mother’s dementia has intensified and she keeps escaping from her nursing home, Lan-xin wants to bring her to live with them but David is both dismissive and disinterested talking about it in the same way one would to a child who wants to get a dog asking if they really have the space and making it clear that looking after her will be Lan-xin’s responsibility. 

While David holds on to a substantial cheque with the intention of investing it in a series of harebrained schemes from luxury tombs to VR cafes, Lan-xin’s desire is essentially to try and repair her fracturing family by buying a larger apartment where they could all live together. David complains that no one tells him anything, but that’s largely because he’s continually dismissive of their dreams and aspirations blowing a hole in his daughter’s new project designing eco-friendly homes that prioritise individual comfort by telling her that she should just extend the living area into the balcony to trick people into thinking they’re getting more for their money. Jia-ning (Ko Chia-yen) in particular is feeling lost in her life unsure of what role it is she’s supposed to be playing while clearly disillusioned with the nature of the relationship between her parents in which her mother is expected to sacrifice her desires in service of her father’s. It’s clear that neither of the children want the kind of futures their parents envisaged for them, their professor son also preparing to return from the US to live a simple life in the Taiwanese countryside. 

Both of the children, however, take their mother for granted and often treat her poorly. The son orders her to book his plane tickets for him and abruptly hangs up after asking her to clean his room and make his favourite food, while Jia-ning also snaps at her expecting her to handle domestic tasks and locate missing items. Lan-xin forms a quasi-maternal relationship with a former student who has returned from America (Mason Lee) and now works in finance but is faced with the implosion of all her hopes firstly in her daughter’s more immediate needs to claim independence in her working life while avoiding the same compromises she was forced to make, and then by the illusionary nature of her home owning dream buying one home for fragmenting family rather than enduring her dissatisfying living arrangements while investing in separate homes for each of her children. 

There may be a degree of personal myth making in her meditating on the lost opportunity of a Parisian education as implied in an imaginary conversation with her mother, though as her miniature-making hobby implies perhaps she played the role she wanted to play but lost sight of herself somewhere along the way. A voyage into her own memory reunites her with her essential self and allows her to reclaim her name no longer willing to be subservient to her husband’s desires but prioritising her own. As in her dream, all her sacrifices will eventually be repaid while Jia-ning too comes to a better understanding of her mother and grandmother along with her own place in a changing society. Lan-xin is finally a master of herself no longer afraid to take up space in her own home and in full control of her own aspirations and desires. 

Reclaim screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival. It is also available to stream in many territories via Netflix.

Netflix trailer (English subtitles)

Images: ©2022 Rong Gwan Productions ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

#LookAtMe (Ken Kwek, 2022)

The unequal authoritarianism of contemporary Singapore conspires against an aspiring YouTuber in Ken Kwek’s surreal drama #LookatMe. Opening with a title card explaining that 2015 prominent activists have jailed for breaking arbitrary laws relating to obscenity and illegal assembly, the film throws its progressive hero into a kafkaesque quest for justice after he’s arrested for publishing a video mocking a homophobic religious figure simultaneously asking why it’s alright for a pastor to spout hate speech but illegal to challenge him and pitting the hero’s desire for fame against that for genuine social change. 

Sean (Yao) does indeed want fame, running an unsuccessful YouTube channel while alternating between mocking more successful stars and emulating them by playing cruel pranks on his understanding mother in the hope of going viral. His life changes when his girlfriend Mia (Shu Yi Ching), whose parents are religious, invites him, and his gay twin brother Ricky (also Yao), to attend an evening service at her church in an attempt to curry favour. The church turns out to be of the evangelical variety, opening with a Christian rock performance before showman pastor Josiah (Adrian Pang) arrives on stage and embarks on a homophobic rant insisting that he has no problem with gay people but is dead against them overturning Singapore’s colonial era law criminalising homosexual sex. Ricky is obviously upset, unsure why Mia whom he assumed to be progressive would have invited him to such an event, and leaves abruptly upsetting Mia’s father in the process. 

Sean is so outraged by the whole thing that after noticing that Josiah gets a lot more hits than he does with his hate speech, he makes a video mocking his messaging and satirically accusing him of bestiality which eventually goes viral but also gets him arrested after the church’s many followers ring the local police en masse. Sean can’t understand why he’s in trouble with the law for publicly insulting a religious leader while Pastor Josiah is seemingly free to spread dangerous and hateful ideas with no fear of challenge or dissent. Banned from social media, he’s picked up again for making an apology video and is then eventually sent to prison for 18 months while facing a defamation trial in his absence. 

Even his new cellmates can’t quite believe he’s been put away for something as ridiculous as a YouTube video yet his plight exemplifies the authoritarianism of the contemporary society in which there is no guarantee of free speech nor safe path to protesting injustice. Ricky is later arrested too for “illegal assembly” when he and three friends hold up a banner protesting the case because four people outside together is apparently prohibited by law. As he points out, how are you supposed to hold up a giant banner with only three people? Sean tried to stand up for Ricky, and Ricky does the same for Sean deciding to come completely out of the closet as an LGBTQ+ activist with the support of their mother Nancy (Pam Oei) as they fight for justice but then faces random violence on the streets from homophobic vigilantes while she is later fired from the primary school where she works after refusing to sign an apology or renounce her political views. 

The film takes aim at social hypocrisy as Sean is sexually abused by the prison warden while inside, and the pastor seeks to preserve his business interests calmly telling Nancy that he bears her no grudge but won’t drop his defamation suit because he has to protect the Church from similar forms of attack. He says this while lounging around on his yacht while servants bring him drinks, clearly incredibly wealthy from the proceeds of his religious life which whichever way you look at it is not a good look. In any case the film’s ironic conclusion which vindicates Sean and the place of video in social protest cannot but seem a little flippant in its implications which reduce the pastor to the position of hypocritical villain while Ricky’s conversion to Christianity feels like too much of a concession even if making clear that it is not religiosity that is being demonised only those like Josiah who would seek to profit from hate and repression. Nevertheless, Kwek presents an alternately heartwarming and harrowing vision of a close family torn apart by outdated and irrational laws and in the end left only with violence as a potential motivator for change. 

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

NYAFF trailer (English subtitles)

My Best Friend’s Breakfast (我吃了那男孩一整年的早餐, Du Zheng Zhe, 2022)

Teenage romance is always complicated, but it seems wilfully so for the couple at the centre of Du Zheng Zhe’s high school rom-com, My Best Friend’s Breakfast (我吃了那男孩一整年的早餐, wǒ chī le nà nánhái yī zhěng nián de zǎocān). Du’s adaptation of the popular novel by Misa lacks the quirky post-modernism with which Taiwanese romantic comedies have come to be associated save a few fantasy sequences and the heroine’s dialogues with possible versions of her future self, opting instead for a more much more conventional tale of miscommunication and the potential costs of failing to speak one’s true feelings at the right time. 

High schooler Wei-xin (Moon Lee) is in any case sceptical of romance as her parents have recently divorced after years of arguing about money and their conflicting views on success and happiness. Her classmate Yuan-shou (Edison Song Bai-wai), who has an obvious crush on her, convinces Wei-xin to take part in the school concert in exchange for receiving a milk tea every day, while she also makes a habit of eating the breakfasts sent to her best friend, popular girl Qi-ran (Jean Ho), by her various suitors. She then runs into top swimmer You-quan (Eric Chou) who chips in when she’s sort on her pineapple bread snack and starts hanging out with him after witnessing his awkward breakup with an unfaithful girlfriend. 

A brief note of social commentary is introduced as the pair bond over their stigmatised familial circumstances, Wei-xin fearing You-quan will look down on her when she explains her parents are divorced while he reveals he feared the same because his father has passed away and his mother is working in the US while he lives in one of the school dorms. The problem is, however, the central miscommunication in their by-proxy courtship in which You-quan starts sending breakfasts to Qi-ran which are obviously intended for Wei-xin though she remains oblivious both of You-quan’s feelings and those of Yuan-shuo. Assuming that You-quan is interested in Qi-ran she keeps quiet, as does he and everyone else giving rise to a lot of totally unnnecessary emotional suffering for all involved. 

Then again Wei-xin’s romantic predicament pushes her into an intense contemplation of her future, engaging in conversation with possible versions of herself in 15 years’ time firstly as a lonely, overweight woman who lives only to eat, and then as a cool and super-confident musician, each of them helping her figure out her feelings and what to do about them. Meanwhile, her youthful romance is contrasted with her parents’ failed relationship which apparently began when they were both carefree teens with no responsibilities and eventually broke down when faced with the realities of supporting each other as a family. While Wei-xin’s musician father has continued to follow his dreams even if they never payoff, her mother has become an unhappy workaholic desperate to work herself out of debt but also perhaps resentful in having given up on love for the illusion of financial security. 

What Wei-xin learns is that it’s better to be bold and have no regrets than risk becoming the version of her future self who is embittered and resentful that she never told her teenage crush how she felt. These teens do at least seem to have a fairly mature attitude to romantic disappointment, taking rejection with good grace and resolving not to let the awkwardness of a failed romantic confession ruin a friendship. One unexpectedly compassionate teen receives a declaration of love from a same sex crush in the midst of wailing about their own romantic heartbreak and though they do not return their feelings immediately embraces them in empathising with their emotional pain while another reflects on a bad breakup and traumatic incident to work on themselves and gain inner confidence before winning back their former love. 

Given all that the idealism of the film’s conclusion may sit a little oddly if perfectly positioned to appeal to a teen audience with an archetypal romantic moment, but is to a degree earned in teen’s path towards emotional honesty and the necessity of being brave enough to accept the risk of heartbreak in chasing their romantic destiny. Perhaps free breakfast delivered to your best friend by proxy is as a good a way to say I love you as any other. 

My Best Friend’s Breakfast screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (Traditional Chinese / English subtitles)

Images: © 2022, SKY FILMS Entertainment Co., Ltd., all rights reserved.

One and Four (一个和四个, Jigme Trinley, 2021)

A lonely forest ranger nursing a broken heart and an incredible hangover finds himself the accidental arbiter of truth in Jigme Trinley’s frosty psychological drama, One and Four (一个和四个, yī gè hé sì gè). One and four is what each of these men are, individuals pitted one against the other. The atmosphere is one of danger and mistrust coupled with almost supernatural dread in the constant warning of an approaching blizzard with a ruthless maniac on the loose while it’s true enough that the only neutral party may have been quietly going stir crazy for quite some time aside from his recent troubles. 

Troubles do indeed descend on Sanggye in threes with each of his various visitors only complicating an already dangerous situation. As the film opens he’s clearly hungover, grumpy, and tense, going about his quotidian tasks and chopping wood while apparently out of food resorting to sucking old bread and bones. He writes in his diary that he wishes the events of the previous night had been a dream and introduces a note of mistrust regarding village man Kunbo who visited him Sanggye had assumed to borrow money but may have had a different purpose in mind. He’s later startled by another knock at the door from a wounded man carrying a rifle who claims to be a policeman chasing a dangerous poacher but looks to Sanggye like he could well be the poacher himself. 

Then again, Sanggye isn’t entirely honest with him either telling the man that he has no alcohol because forest rangers aren’t supposed to drink yet we’ve already seen bottles littering the cabin and it seems clear he woke with a hangover. “I didn’t know you why should I tell you the truth” he later tells his guest not unreasonably having concealed Kunbo’s visit the night before but now finding himself dragged into a wider drama involving a high speed crash which seems to have caused the death of at least one policeman with the poacher supposedly on the run. Sanggye looks for clues most particularly in the policeman’s badge number though we might wonder if it’s reasonable to assume someone driving a police car or wearing a jacket with a number on it is necessarily a policeman, or if on the other hand someone carrying a hunter’s rifle in the manner of a poacher must be a poacher. He looks for objective facts occasionally asking for verifiable detail such as the name of the man who runs the forest commission and his place of birth but once both Kunbo and another man also claiming to be a policeman turns up the situation only becomes more confusing.

Did Kunbo set him up, drop by deliberately to upset him so he’d be less likely to catch him committing crimes or is he simply in the middle of a bad situation? Are both these men policemen or neither, could they both be poachers after the same kill with Kunbo caught in the middle or is the whole thing some kind of bizarre cosmic coincidence ironically occurring on the “day for heroes to gather” as it says today to be on Sanggye’s wall calendar. As Sanggye points out, if one of these men is a poacher most likely he’d be dead by now but then maybe he’s only waiting to retrieve his missing hoard of antlers cut from a bemused deer left bleeding in the snow. 

“Preventing forest fires is everyone’s responsibility” according to Sanggye’s mug, though it seems unlikely anyone’s going to be able to stamp out this conflagration very speedily. Aligned with nature, Sanggye first refuses to accept a gun perhaps because he does not trust the man who gives it to him fearing that he intends to lull him into a false sense of security but is eventually forced to wield one in a four-way stand off uncertain who to believe in this increasingly complicated piece of game theory thought experiment. Sanggye probably wishes this had all been a dream too though one supposes he’s reason to believe the bad news he received the previous evening may not be true. In any case another cosmic coincidence eventually makes his decision for him as the clock rounds out the day. Tense, frosty, and full of questioning angles, Jigme Trinley’s well designed forest fable suggests the most dangerous beast in the forest is your fellow man though a deer may repay a kindness if you’re mindful enough to show them one. 

One and Four screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Images: © Mani Stone Pictures/Tsemdo

Imaginur (Nik Amir Mustapha, 2022)

“It’s a pickle, isn’t it? Trying to remember what you don’t know you’ve forgotten.” So says the father of the hero of Nik Amir Mustapha’s touching sci-fi romance, Imaginur. It is however his son who’s trying to piece things back together while seemingly stuck in a maddening time loop chasing the ghost of lost love and searching for his “happy place”, the safest place he can imagine that will reconnect him with who he really is. 

Zahul seems to be haunted by fleeting glimpses of a woman whose face is hidden. After being involved in a traffic accident, he fetches up at the hospital but is there with his elderly father who is living with dementia. An elderly lady gives him a card for a special service called Hypnotica run by a mad scientist named Ramil who claims he can use hypnosis to cure Zahul’s panic attacks the most recent of which caused him to abandon his father in a supermarket after an awkward interaction with his ex. Ramil tells him that they’re simply going to revisist old memories with a new perspective to solve the cause of his anxiety but we can’t be sure when or if Zahul has actually left the state of hypnosis. Unable to remember or get a firm grasp on his reality he becomes panicked and short tempered, eventually paranoid and rambling about people trying to steal his brain.

Even so as someone puts it, his quest for Nur, a woman he meets at a burger stand, is also a quest for light and the path back towards himself in reclaiming his past even if it comes with the pain of loss on waking up to the reality. “This is what becomes of our lives” the sympathetic elderly woman laments of Zahul’s father, only for Zahul to reply that there’s no point resisting, but resisting is in a sense what he’s been doing trying to push through to a more concrete reality unwilling to accept the first or even second iteration of a moment in time but looking for the essential truth of it. 

What his father tells him is that the answer is what we feel in out hearts, that there’s nothing so important as feeling except perhaps the memory of it. That is in a sense what Zahul is chasing, trying to reorient himself through emotional logic while simultaneously reluctant as if avoiding something he doesn’t know that he’s forgotten. Meanwhile, he becomes increasingly paranoid about the shadiness of Ramli’s operation which even he calls a “pseudoscience” wondering if he’s caught up in some kind of conspiracy while convinced they’re trying to steal his brain or at least mess with it to drive him out of his mind. 

Yet it all seems to come back to a choice he didn’t and didn’t make watching the mysterious woman head towards a station with a suitcase but getting hit by a car before reaching her. “Remember me” she plaintively asks in the shared space of his mindscape, perhaps a phantom of his imagination but also a real woman he didn’t know he’d forgotten who holds the key to everything he is. “You live inside your head a little too much” Nur tells him, and she’s absolutely right while ironically advising him to find his happy place little knowing that perhaps he has and they’re already in it. 

Oneiric and elliptical, the film’s fragmentary dream logic in which Zahul is forced to relive a series of moments from getting a parking ticket to being at the hospital eventually builds towards a moving moment of cohesion as Zahul manages to find himself again accepting both love and loss along with memory in all of its emotional intensity. Opening with a classic hypnotic spiral, there’s a kind of charm in Nik Amir Mustapha’s retro production design in the lo-fi hypnotism headsets Ramil alarmingly claims turn off part of the brain along with the softened colour palate that lends a note of nostalgia to what we assume to be the present day. In any case there is something genuinely touching in Zahul’s determination to reclaim himself through remembering lost love and discovering the eternal in transient moments of happiness.  

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

Teaser trailer (English subtitles)

Images: © 2022 Lumatic Films.

Ribbon (Non, 2022)

What is the place of art amid a global crisis? A young student finds herself wrestling with her sense of purpose uncertain if art is more necessary than ever before or a completely worthless waste of time that could be better used dealing with the situation on a more practical level. Written, directed, and edited by actress/singer Non, Ribbon is a response to pandemic anxiety but also a meta drama about an artist reclaiming a sense of confidence in their work along with their right to make it even if not widely understood. 

As the film opens, art student Itsuka (Non) is lugging a series of paintings and art equipment back to her university for the upcoming graduation exhibition, only the exhibition has just been cancelled because the university will be closing its doors the following day due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Itsuka has to cart all her stuff home again, but she’s luckier than some she witnesses who are left with no choice other than to destroy the precious works of art into which they’ve poured four years of their lives because they can’t store them and neither can the university. 

Watching her fellow students in tears as they crush, tear, and bludgeon their projects Itsuka can’t help but wonder what separates her painting from “trash”, seeing these precious pieces dismembered and left out for the binmen. The feeling is compounded when her mother (Misayo Haruki) pays her a visit, clad in a homemade hazmat suit, and throws the painting out justifying herself that as it had stuff stuck on it she thought it was just something she’d made messing around, more like a child’s collage than a serious piece of “art”. Unable to accept her mistake, Itsuka’s mother defensively doubles down leading to a climactic argument and the visits of other family members including her father (Daikichi Sugawara) who arrives with a social distancing pole and her sister (Karin Ono) who now dresses like an assassin each armed with passive aggressive peace offerings but ultimately seeking validations that her mother was right to dismiss her incomprehensible art. 

While her friend Hirai (Rio Yamashita) is later caught sneaking into uni to work on her much more conventional piece, a large canvas painting featuring a young girl in a forest with giraffes and leopards, Itsuka has been unable to find the desire to paint. The painting, a mixed media portrait of a young woman surrounded by ribbons, sits looking down on her taped to the wall but she can’t get away from the idea that perhaps her work really is “trash” and she’s just been wasting her time on something meaningless that other people don’t understand or care about. The feeling is compounded when she’s informed that the job offer she had from a design firm for after graduation has been rescinded due to COVID uncertainty. Only when she accidentally reconnects with a middle-school classmate (Daichi Watanabe) who had praised her work does she begin to rediscover its value not least in allowing her to vent her frustrations not only with the pandemic-era society and its isolating anxieties, but the conservative ideas embodied by her mother’s constant complaints about her “attitude” reminding her she’ll never get married if she carries on as she is.  

“This is what our frustration looks like” she explains incorporating her friend’s fractured painting to turn her formerly chaotic apartment into an installation covered in the ribbons which had previously swarmed around her. Opening with scenes of the deserted university peopled with broken statues, headless mannequins, and crude drawings on walls, Non captures a sense of the lonely despair of the early days of the pandemic allowing these now empty places to seem almost haunted by an eerie sense of absence. There is an unavoidable absurdity in the constant masking, obsession with social distance, and spraying anything and everything with sanitiser but also a care beneath the anxiety in the concern for others’ safety as well as one’s own. “Heavy” is how Itsuka frequently describes her situation not only the physical weight of her work but its spiritual burden along with her despair and anxiety for her uncertain future, but learning to bear it allows her to rediscover a purpose and value in art not despite but because of the times in which she lives. Quirky and heartwarming, Non’s accomplished directorial debut is not only a snapshot of ordinary life in a pandemic, but a meta tale of a young woman reclaiming her right to create and vent her frustrations towards a sometimes restrictive society. 

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

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Images: ©︎”Ribbon” Film Partners

Intimate Stranger (親密な他人, Mayu Nakamura, 2022)

“This society pampers men too much, no matter their age” according to a middle-aged woman searching for her missing son, yet in many ways it’s the primacy of the mother and maternal neglect that drive Mayu Nakamura’s eerie psychological chiller, Intimate Stranger (親密な他人, Shinmitsuna Tanin). Perhaps in some ways, that’s what a mother and a son should become, of course close and loving yet each with their own lives unknown to one another but for Mrs Ishikawa those boundaries have perhaps become corrupt in her overwhelming need to embody the maternal ideal. 

Mrs Ishikawa (Asuka Kurosawa) lives alone and is searching for her grown-up son, Shinpei, who went missing a year ago. She has a job in shop selling baby clothes and accessories but is described by other staff members as a bit strange though they continue to invite her to afterwork gatherings knowing she won’t come. One day she gets a call from a young man, Yuji (Fuju Kamio), who says he has information about Shinpei but in reality is part of a gang running “ore ore” scams who are also looking for him because he previously worked with them. Yuji’s purpose in approaching Mrs Ishikawa is to get info out of her, but she’s a little bit ahead of him and manages to plant the seeds of a dark seduction. 

Seduced is what Yuji eventually is in a discomforting mix of the erotic and the maternal. Casting shades of Vertigo, Mrs Ishikawa persuades him to move into her apartment, sleep in Shinpei’s room, and wear his clothes keeping him a virtual prisoner while forcing him into the role of her surrogate son. As we later discover, Yuji was a teenage runaway seemingly abandoned by his mother and craves maternal affection but is ashamed of admitting and fearful of accepting it all of which would make him ideal prey for a woman like Mrs Ishikawa who at all rates seems to need a son to feel herself complete. 

At the shop where she works, Mrs Ishikawa transgressively sniffs and fondles clothes for newborn infants while at one point driven to distraction by a crying child temporarily separated from its mother to the point that she inappropriately picks it up. She appears to be totally consumed by the maternal image and to that extent or else because of some previous trauma becomes extremely hostile when confronted with her sexuality. Her horror on being picked up by a gigalo when expecting to meet a man with info about Shinpei might be understandable, but the glee on her face after slashing a man with a straight razor when he attempted to attack her is less so while Yuji’s eventual confusion about the nature of their connection highlights the discomforting intersection of the maternal and the erotic. 

We have to wonder if Shinpei simply decided to escape the grasp of an overbearing mother who could not bear to accept that her son was now a man, or if Yuji’s suspicions that he may have met a darker fate are more than mere reflections of his own fear of maternal connection. Yet like story of the bluebird of happiness that Shinpei was apparently fond of telling, perhaps each of them for a time found what they needed in the other only to lose it again on identifying the darkness that underlines their relationship. 

Listening to a report on the news, Mrs Ishikawa explains that “ore ore” scams only happen in Japan because nowhere else would a parent drop everything and run cash in hand when told a grownup son is in financial trouble which might in a sense be unfair save for the urgency, similar scams circulate via text and messaging apps in many countries. Yet the scam hints at this same level of disconnection, that the often elderly targets cannot tell that it is not their son or grandson’s voice on the phone nor realise that the information they’re being given does not make sense so estranged have families become. The coronavirus pandemic meanwhile only makes the scammers’ job easier given the loneliness of enforced isolation coupled with generalised masking which decreases the level of intimacy on both sides dehumanising the target while allowing the scammer to further conceal their identity. 

Mrs Ishikawa is in a sense wearing a permanent mask, consumed by the maternal ideal and unable to conceive of herself as anything outside of a mother. There is something unsettling and vampiric in her need as she at one point sucks blood from her finger and wields her razor with dangerous affection when offering Yuji the closest shave he’ll ever have but also a deep sadness that like the bluebird of happiness that which she most wants is always going to fly away from her one way or another. The uncanniness of the desaturated colour palate adds a further note of dread to the noirish tale of a young man seduced by Oedipal desire and drawn as much towards death as love.

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

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Images: © Siglo/Omphalos Pictures