The Girl and the Gun (Babae at Baril, Rae Red, 2019)

“Everything is personal” according to one extremely oppressed young man in Rae Red’s neo noir voyage through the legacies of authoritarian violence, The Girl and the Gun (Babae at Baril). Drawing a direct line from Marcos-era oppression to Duterte’s Philippines and the war on drugs, Red’s debut solo feature is an irony-fuelled inquisition of the modern society equally ruled by fear and desperation in which many feel violence is the only recourse against their sense of despair only to discover that violence breeds only more of the same in a nihilistic spiral of hopeless impotence. 

The never named heroine (Janine Gutierrez) is a meek and mild young woman who works in a department store where women, in particular, are expected to be prim and proper. The girl, however, is forever pulled up about the ladder in her tights, seemingly her only pair and as we’ll see she cannot afford to buy a replacement nor will one be provided for her by her employers who pat down employees as they leave the store each evening to ensure they haven’t stolen anything. Despite this however she believes she works hard and is under-appreciated, her sense of disappointment palpable as she witnesses another young woman be named employee of the month. Her colleagues view her as aloof because she is always the last to leave the building and never joins them for drinks, little knowing that it’s not her shyness that keeps her away but shame in her poverty. She has a long and arduous journey home to the poor part of town where she shares a room with another young woman, unable even to make her rent because she sends most of what she earns to the mother she apparently feels unable to return to. For all these reasons, she finds herself alone with a predatory colleague (Felix Roco) who rapes her, sheepishly apologises, and then returns with more threatening violence to advise her to keep her mouth shut. 

The evening before she’d heard a gun shot, left her apartment to investigate and seen a man run away, noticing an abandoned pistol with a heart on the barrel discarded in a rubbish bin. After the rape, she picks it up, immediately pointing it directly at the abusive boyfriend of her roommate. The gun gives her a sense of empowerment that counters the trauma of her victimisation. She is already beyond caring and can now say all the things she’s ever wanted to say to the men who treat her with such utter contempt, taking a flirty customer to task for his inappropriate behaviour with his young daughter sitting right next to him, and eventually giving her boss a piece of her mind when he finally fires her over something as petty as a barely visible uniform infraction. 

The girl had not usually been the type to complain, both her sleazy landlord and priggish boss keen to tell her that there are plenty of people waiting to take her place as if she should be grateful that her awful life is still not more awful. She and her friend dream of escaping the city, going home, or at least far away to a place where they could live a better life. Jun Jun (Elijah Canlas) the teenage drug dealer from the news reports dreams of something similar, lamenting most of all that he had homework due before he became the subject of a manhunt with which he’d struggled. He wonders how he might have done. His friend gives him all his savings which he’d been collecting for his own escape, hoping to return to his mother with his younger sister in tow in order to save her from a father he at least fears is abusive. 

Tracking through the history of the gun before it found its way into the hands of the girl, Red takes us back to the authoritarian violence of the Marcos regime as a nervous policeman assassinates “activists” in place of the current “drug dealers”, his son eventually picking up his gun a “policeman” like his father but filled with resentment towards inescapability of his fate. The gun passes from hand to hand, a child sticking the little heart sticker on it, creating only more chaos wherever it goes. It gives the girl the courage she thought she lacked to seize her agency, to talk back, to be “unladylike” in insisting on her equality in the face of the countless men who ignore, cat call, and abuse her. But the gun itself is not enough, her quest for violent vengeance hollow and unfulfilling, the only real liberation coming as she decides to abandon it in a final act of catharsis that breaks the cycle of violence and oppression which had trapped each of the gun’s owners. As a boy had said, it’s all personal. You might think it’s nothing to do with you, but you can’t escape the oppressions of the world in which you live be they poverty, misogyny, or authoritarianism. 

Largely taking place at night, Red bathes her city in the tones of neo noir, a land of shadows among neon, a shining cityscape of high rise buildings the like of which neither the girl or the street kids are ever likely to enter. Making fantastic use of music from the noirish jazz to the nostalgic pop of the oppressive ‘80s she fully embraces the pulpy exploitation of the material but always maintains a sense of playful irony, never forgetting the full import of her sometimes grim satire of life on the margins of Duterte’s Philippines as her variously oppressed protagonists seek freedom in violence but find only more constraint in the depths of nihilistic despair.


The Girl and the Gun streamed as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Hell Bank Presents: Running Ghost (冥通銀行特約:翻生爭霸戰, Mark Lee, 2020)

“The most important thing in life is to know how we die” according to the very efficient lady manning the desk in the Labour Department of Hell where, it seems, everyone has to do their bit. No rest for the wicked, even in death. A glorious satire on the business of modern living, Mark Lee’s Hell Bank Presents: Running Ghost (冥通銀行特約:翻生爭霸戰) sends its recently deceased hero on a quest to find meaning in his life from the other side as he becomes an unwilling contestant in an undead variety show. 

Wong Hui Kwai (Wong You-nam) has been dead for 22 days. Unusually, he can’t remember how he died, and as he tells the lady at Labour Department of Hell when asked what he achieved while alive was known chiefly for his ability to install internet cables with maximum efficiency (unfortunately Hell is already fully covered for wi-fi). Sadly, Hui Kwai didn’t do anything of note in his life and now it’s over he’d really rather just take it easy, which is why when he’s offered a nice job he tries to back out towards fiery torture. Nevertheless he finds himself a sudden replacement for a contestant who ascended at an extremely inconvenient moment right before he was supposed to take to the stage on Hell’s hottest variety show Hell Bank Presents: Running Ghost in which the prize is instant resurrection. Hui Kwai needs to succeed in three rounds of ghostly pranks, making the living faint, possessing a living person, and then scaring someone to death. 

Asked again on the stage where the MC reframes his abilities as a cable guy to paint him as a concealment expert, a very useful skill for a ghost trying to scare people, Hui Kwai is again forced to confront the fact that his life was extremely disappointing, his only “talent” was going to work, sleeping, and then going to work again. You might even say he was already a ghost before he died, though the resurrection prize does sound good because it would allow him to take care of some “unfinished business” with his childhood sweetheart Bo Yee (Venus Wong) whom, he fears, is being taken advantage of by an unscrupulous estate agent. As General Bull tells him, his problem is he needs to believe in himself more, pointing out that his nerdy appearance is just like that of a super hero before they discover their hidden powers. He never accomplished anything because he never really tried, if he wants his life back he’ll have to actually fight for it. 

Unfortunately, having been dead only 22 days he’s not exactly powerful which is why he’s abruptly sucked into the dream catcher set up by eccentric ghost enthusiast Ling Kay (Cecilia So Lai Shan) who has some “unfinished business” of her own, trying to trap a spirit in the hope that they’ll be able to make contact with her late father. Lee has a lot of fun with the gadgetry of the supernatural which runs from Ling Kay’s old school dream catcher and Ouija boards to water pistols filled with ghost-busting pee and children’s flashlights “blessed” with the ability to burn up spirits. Are you a ghost needing to find an unlucky person to scare? There’s an app for that, and it works with your “Fat-bit” wristwatch. Meanwhile, even in Hell there are variety shows sponsored by Starbucks Coffins which have breaks featuring ads for services you can use to offload your unwanted funerary offerings. Paper money is no longer any good, in the after life they use “Helipay”, but General Bull who can presumably beam himself anywhere still travels in a gothic rickshaw pulled by an unfortunate underling forced to re-enact his suicide every night as part of his eternal torment. 

Running Ghost excels in its madcap world building in which the after life is somehow much more technologically advanced than the mortal realm, all slick touch screens and augmented reality, but perhaps still subject to the same old vices in which the undead vacuously watch reality shows and get their kicks pranking the living. Still, only after he’s died can Hui Kwai make the zero to hero journey, realising his unfinished business is really learning to unlock his latent potential which he does by protecting someone else, just not the someone he originally came back to protect. A much needed shot in the arm for HK supernatural comedy, Hell Bank Presents: Running Ghost is a spooky delight. 


Hell Bank Presents: Running Ghost streamed as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (Cantonese with English & Traditional Chinese subtitles)

Baseball Girl (야구소녀, Choi Yun-tae, 2019)

According to the title card which opens Choi Yun-tae’s Baseball Girl (야구소녀, Yagoosonyeo), an obscure regulation in the founding principles of the Korean Baseball League placed a bar on players who were “biologically non-male”, a ban which was struck down in 1996 allowing women to play professionally though attitudes it seems are much harder to change than regulations. In contrast to the grand tradition of Korean sports dramas, the contest is not a game but the right to play in one and the opposing team not talented rivals but sneering sexism and a conformist society. 

Joo Soo-in (Lee Joo-young) made the papers as the first girl to play in her high school team in over 20 years. Casting an eye around her room we see her trophies and discover that she is a talented pitcher known for top speed fastballs, but then as others seem to put it her balls are only fast “for a girl”. All she’s ever dreamed of is playing professionally and, after all, there’s nothing in the rulebook to say she can’t but that’s all anyone ever tells her. Why can’t I? she asks them, but the only answer they have for her is that it simply isn’t done. Lined up with her teammates following a meeting with a scout from the big leagues, Soo-in watches as only one of her friends, Jeong-ho (Kwak Dong-yeon), is picked. The others all walk off with resignation, accepting that they’ll need to find alternate careers but Soo-in doesn’t back down. 

Soo-in’s determination places her at odds with her working class family, her harried mother (Yum Hye-ran) continually insisting that she’s being childish and unreasonable and should give up her dreams to do something more practical with her life or risk becoming like her father (Song Young-Kyu) who is perpetually unemployed, unable to provide for the family while repeatedly failing the exam to become a licensed estate agent. There’s no shame in giving up when there’s no chance of success, her mother tells her, aligning her quest with her father’s as an egotistical act of prideful selfishness. As a teenage girl, however, Soo-in cannot help but feel the slight of her parents’ lack of support, resenting her mother’s understandable prioritisation of the ability to earn as she pushes Soo-in towards taking an office job in the factory where she works right out of high school in the belief that she’s helping her towards an economically stable life. 

Meanwhile, the new coach on the team, Jin-tae (Lee Joon-Hyuk), is quick to sideline her, viewing her as ridiculous and deluded. It’s not because you’re a girl, he tells her, it’s that you aren’t good enough, paradoxically insisting that she never could be because of the “limitations” of her female body which make it impossible for her to compete with men who also, as he points out, are extremely unlikely to make it as professional players. She tells him that he’s wrong, vowing to pitch at a speed unheard of, certain that if achieved the leagues would have to take her. Jin-tae has problems of his own, a never was player who wasted his youth trying to turn pro, became an alcoholic, and ruined his marriage. It’s understandable that his experiences have turned him cynical and mean, but something about Jin-soo’s determination, along with her strong skillset, begins to move him. Maybe he thinks it’s hopeless too, but it would be wrong to deny her the right to try. 

The biggest battle Soo-in faces, however, is from other players. Jeong-ho relates how in their little league days she was the only girl on the team and the kids mercilessly bullied her in part because the coach told them having a woman around was bad luck and made them all do intensive training to encourage her to quit. Jin-tae tries to get his scout friend to get her a tryout for a professional team, but he makes no secret of his distaste for the idea, exasperatedly complaining that Soo-in doesn’t look like a ball player (i.e., not a man, small and slight) only to later offer her an insulting token job as a figurehead for a “Woman’s Baseball Project” designed to make his big league team look more progressive than it really is. At her big try out, the guys in the dug out snigger and laugh, making fun of the batter who was struck out by “a girl” while the other coach congratulates her suggesting that she must have “trained with the boys” before giving her some unsolicited advice. 

As she tells the director of the big league team, baseball is for everyone. Her femininity is not a strength or a weakness, it simply is. She might not be as fast or as strong, but she’s smart, and brute force is not the point of the game. Some tell to her give up, that she should just play in the women’s leagues as a “hobby”, and perhaps at times Soo-in doubts herself but as Jin-tae tells her, other girls can dream because she showed them it was possible when she overcame huge prejudice to play on her high school team. Yet for Soo-in with every success it will only get harder. Even so she won’t give in, playing hardball with a relentlessly patriarchal society as she insists on the right to follow her dreams wherever they may take her.


Baseball Girl streams in the US via the Smart Cinema app until Sept.12 as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

They Say Nothing Stays the Same (ある船頭の話, Joe Odagiri, 2019)

“Something new comes along, old things have to go” according to the philosophical boatman at the centre of Joe Odagiri’s They Say Nothing Stays the Same (ある船頭の話, Aru Sendo No Hanashi). A Meiji-set lament for changing times, Odagiri’s first feature following his 2009 mid-length comedy Looking For Cherry Blossoms is a visual tour de force shot by Christopher Doyle with whom he worked on the 2017 Hong Kong film The White Girl whose ethereal images of the majestic Japanese landscape with its misty vistas and rolling river perfectly compliment Odagiri’s poetic contemplation of transience and goodness. 

Toichi (Akira Emoto), the boatman, has ferried weary souls across the river for as long as anyone can remember but his days are numbered. Modernity is coming to the village in the very literal form of a bridge currently under construction not far from the crossing point, the workmen’s hammers ringing in Toichi’s ears like a ticking clock reminding him that his era is coming to a close, industrial noise at war with the tranquility of nature. For all that he tries to be philosophical. The bridge will certainly be convenient, as he admits to a man (Takashi Sasano) who needs to transport his cow across the river, the only current solution being to cross where the water’s shallowest and have the cow (and its minder) swim alongside while the man rides the boat. Toichi’s young friend Genzo (Nijiro Murakami) who sells herbal medicines, however, isn’t quite so philosophical. He doesn’t think the bridge is a good thing at all and only half-jokingly suggests blowing it up before it’s finished. 

But change comes earlier than expected. Hitting a strange object in the water, Toichi discovers it to be the body of a young girl (Ririka Kawashima) apparently still alive if only just. He takes her in and nurses her back to health, dressing her in a red outfit incongruously in the Chinese style, though she claims to have lost her memory and only later gives her name as “Fu”. Toichi muses on the possibilities, her name perhaps taken from the character for wind which, he points out, is a great motivator for a boatman capable of speeding up the rate of change, but also hears tell of a heinous crime the next village over in which an entire family were brutally murdered with only the daughter apparently spared, feared to have been kidnapped by the killer. Suspecting Fu may be the missing girl, he decides to help her, explaining her presence away in implying she’s a relative from “upriver” he’s been asked to look after for unspecified reasons. 

Toichi too claims to be from “upriver” though we never find out where it was he got those clothes from, assuming someone left them on his boat or like the portrait of the Virgin Mary he admires for its beauty and a memory of sorrow in the eyes of the woman who gave it to him as she explained that she would not come this way again, they simply drifted into his life. The poetic import of his existence as a boatman is not lost on him as he crosses the wide river of life and death, haunted by the strange spectre of another young woman who tells him that he’s damned himself with kindness in intervening in matters of fate. The modern world ebbs ever closer, a city doctor dressed in a white suit bringing Western medicine that challenges Genzo’s concoctions while the arrogant engineer and coarse construction workers resentfully climb into Toichi’s boat. 

“Bridges aren’t important, I prefer fireflies” Fu affirms, hearing the various ways in which the river is already changing. We find the bridge completed in the depths of winter, Toichi attempting to earn a living with animal pelts but now throroughly out of place in the frozen landscape. Nihei (Masatoshi Nagase), a local, laments the way the bridge seems to have hurried their lives, everyone busily crossing back and forth, the modern world now thoroughly penetrating the village. No longer so young or so kind, Genzo is fully corrupted, dressed in a three-piece suit and cape with a brogues on his feet unsuited to the rocky terrain and now looking down on his old friend who will not be able to cross the bridge into the modern world but will be forever cast away, a boatman to the end never resting too long on the shore. 

Yet Toichi maintains his imperfect humanity, admiring Nihei’s father (Haruomi Hosono) as man who truly put others before himself even in death in bequeathing his body to the animals in recompense for the many lives he took as a hunter. Toichi admits that he is not so good, a “selfish nobody” who resents the bridge despite himself but resolves to do better to become a man like Nihei’s father. Odagiri shows us leaves on the water which resemble Toichi’s boat as if to remind us how small he is and how great the river, but leaving us with the knowledge that it and he flows on if in flight, continually displaced by the onrush of an unwelcome modernity with its all of its selfishness and lust for the dubious lure of convenience. Boasting a host of famous faces in tiny roles from an imposing Yu Aoi taking village women to perform in a festival to Masatoshi Nagase in an extended cameo and Harumi Hosono as a beatific corpse, Odagiri’s melancholy tone poem is an elegy for an idealised pre-modern age in which the fireflies still shone on the banks of the river and there was time enough for human goodness. 


They Say Nothing Stays the Same streamed as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Miyamoto (宮本から君へ, Tetsuya Mariko, 2019)

Three years after Destruction Babies, Tetsuya Mariko returns with another ultra-violent though strangely humorous masculinity drama as a mild-mannered salaryman embarks on a quest to win the heart of his one true love by proving himself a man even if aware that his efforts are entirely meaningless while he strikes out where it counts. Inspired by Hideki Arai’s manga, Mariko previously adapted Miyamoto (宮本から君へ, Miyamoto kara Kimi e) as a late night TV drama with the majority of the cast reprising their roles for the big screen feature.

As the film opens, the titular Miyamoto (Sosuke Ikematsu) is walking bruised and bloodied through a children’s park, staring at his unrecognisable face in the hazy mirror of a public bathroom. A regular salaryman, he’s later taken to task by his boss (Kanji Furutachi). After all, how does he expect people to do business with him when he’s lost all his front teeth and has his arm in a sling? His boss reminds him he’s about to be married and will soon be a father so perhaps a little more forward-thinking responsibility is in order. It seems that Miyamoto got into some kind of fight and improbably enough he won, the other guy apparently in hospital not to recover for months though thankfully he does not want to press charges. Nevertheless, Miyamoto seems strangely cheerful, happy in himself as he takes his bride to be, Yasuko (Yu Aoi), home to meet his parents who don’t disapprove but are extremely put out by his continued secrecy especially as Yasuko is already pregnant though something tells us there’s much more to this than your average shotgun wedding.  

Skipping back between the present day of the happily settled couple and the various stages of their courtship we begin to see a pattern developing as the hapless young salaryman falls for the pretty office lady only to discover she was technically using him to break up with an obsessive ex struggling to accept that their relationship is over. Challenged by bohemian playboy Yuji (Arata Iura), Miyamoto instinctively barks out that Yasuko is a special woman and he will protect her at all costs though the jury’s out on how exactly he plans to do that. In any case, Yuji exits and even if unconvinced, Yasuko is taken in by the idea of finding a protector. But Miyamoto is less than true to his word. When it really counts, he lets her down, passed out drunk as she’s assaulted by a friend from his rugby team (Wataru Ichinose). What ensues is partly, in his mind, a means of making amends to her by getting his revenge and a quest to reclaim his self-respect by asserting his masculinity in besting his girlfriend’s rapist in a fight. “It was me he insulted” Miyamoto somewhat problematically insists, rage shovelling rice into his mouth directly from the cooker while Yasuko can barely contain her resentment and exasperation with his continued failure to follow through while painting himself as the victim in her rape. 

Consumed by toxic masculinity, Miyamoto does indeed frame everything through the prism of his fracturing manhood, never jealous or abusive but comparing himself unfavourably to the other men in Yasuko’s life and convincing himself the way to beat them all is by proving himself the most manly through the medium of pugilism. Meanwhile, he emotionally neglects the woman he claims to love and promised to protect, temporarily distancing himself from her while he embarks on his quest, leaving her entirely alone to deal with her trauma. Yasuko makes it clear that she doesn’t care about his pointless and idiotic need to validate himself through male violence, but he does it anyway and then expects her to be impressed (which she isn’t, really). In any case he freely admits he did it all for himself, literally shredding his rival’s manhood in order to retake his own in addition to gaining an extremely ironic form of revenge.  

Absurd and ridiculous as it is, Miyamoto’s quest does at least allow him to gain the self-confidence which will eventually allow him to patch things up with Yasuko, ironically by affirming that he no longer sees the need to look for approval and will protect her and their new family forevermore. A dark satire of fragile masculinity filled with cartoonish yet surprisingly graphic violence, Mariko’s third feature nevertheless retreats from the pure nihilism of Destruction Babies towards a more positive if perhaps equally uncomfortable resolution as the no longer quite so insecure Miyamoto prepares to enter a new phase of his life as a paternal figure and protector of a family.


Miyamoto streams in the US via the Smart Cinema app until Sept.12 as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

One Night (ひとよ, Kazuya Shiraishi, 2019)

“You can live however you want, you’re totally free. You can be anything” a woman tells her children, believing she is freeing them from a cycle of violence and oppression but unwittingly consigning them to another kind of cage in Kazuya Shiraishi’s raw family drama One Night (ひとよ, Hitoyo). Adapting the stage play by Yuko Kuwabara, Shiraishi is the latest in a long line of directors asking questions about the true nature of family, taking the hahamono or “mother movie” in a new direction but ultimately finding faith at least in the concept as the family unit finally begins to repair itself in a spirit of reconciliation and forgiveness. 

The “one night” of the title is that of 23rd May, 2004 on which wife and mother Koharu (Yuko Tanaka) backs over her relentlessly abusive husband in one of the taxis operated by their company. At some point, even if only perhaps in those few moments sitting at the steering wheel, Koharu appears to have given this a great deal of thought. Calmly walking back into her familial home where her three children are each sporting prominent facial wounds from a recent beating, she hands each of them a handmade onigiri and explains that she has just killed their father. Planning to hand herself in she reassures them that an uncle will look after them and the company so they’ve no need to worry. She has no idea how long she’ll be in prison for, but cautions that she may not return for 15 years hoping that by then the stigma will have passed. On her way out, she pauses to tell them that she is proud of what she’s done, saving them from their father’s authoritarian abuse and urging them to be free to live their lives in whichever way they choose. 

15 years later, however, the children find themselves burdened by her words. Yuji (Takeru Satoh) who dreamed of being a novelist has become a cynical journalist working for a pornographic magazine. Daiki (Ryohei Suzuki) who has a stammer and wanted to be a mechanic has never been able to hold down a steady job and is on the brink of divorce after showing signs of becoming abusive himself, while Sonoko (Mayu Matsuoka) who wanted to be a hairdresser is now working as a bar hostess drinking herself into oblivion. Living with the legacy of that one night, none of them has been able to live freely or to achieve their dreams but has remained arrested in some way waiting for Koharu’s return. 

While in her mind she freed them, the children find themselves dealing with the secondary sense of abandonment in her decision to exile herself from their lives, essentially leaving them to deal with the fallout of her “crime” all alone. Not only are they now orphaned, they also have to live with the stigma of being related to a notorious murderess with all of the peculiar burdens that entails in Japanese society from harassment and bullying to reduced employment opportunities and an internalised shame. Meanwhile, their mother’s words ring in their ears, urging them to be free, to be who they wanted to be and achieve their dreams, but they find themselves paralysed by the pressure to live up to the sacrifice Koharu has made on their behalf. While Sonoko is the most sympathetic, the boys are consumed by resentment. Koharu sees her 15 years of wandering as an exile undertaken as a kind of atonement and intended to keep the children safe from further social stigma, but her sons feel only the abandonment. 

Still, “mom’s still mom. It’s we who’ve got to change” Daiki tries to convince his brother, “we’re not kids anymore” he later adds as they recreate a thwarted teenage attempt to save their mother but in a very real sense they are. The problem in Daiki’s marriage turns out be rooted in insecurity, a failure of intimacy that saw him reluctant to let his wife and daughter into his traumatic past which finally expressed itself in violence. Meanwhile another driver at the taxi firm finds himself in a parallel struggle as he processes his own troubled relationship with an estranged teenage son and comes to realise his sins are indeed being visited on him despite his best efforts to prevent it. He sympathises with Koharu against the “ungrateful” children who, like the those of the classic hahamono, fail to understand the quality of their parent’s love as expressed in the sacrifices they have made on their behalf. Yet it’s Yuji who had branded his family a mere simulacrum who eventually fights hardest to save it, paving the way for a reconciliation as they finally bring closure to the events of 15 years previously and begin to move on with the rest of their lives. A raw and painful examination of familial trauma, Shiraishi’s bruising drama eventually allows the family to reclaim the night, repairing their fracturing bonds in sharing their emotional burdens freed at last from the oppressive legacies of abuse and resentment.


One Night streams in the US via the Smart Cinema app on Sept. 6 & 11 as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Kim Ji-young, Born 1982 (82년생 김지영, Kim Do-young, 2019)

In authoritarian regimes, dissidence is merely reframed as “mental illness”. Those who speak out are simply dismissed as “mad”, to be pitied for their inability to feel the love the state has for them or to understand that their policies are good, and right, and just. They must be healed, made to see the truth. When Cho Nam-joo’s Kim Ji-young, Born 1982 (82년생 김지영, 82 Nyeonsaeng Kim Ji-young) was published in South Korea it created a cultural schism in a still fiercely patriarchal society, provoking a sustained backlash from conservative commentators while resonating strongly with female readers. The film adaptation directed by Kim Do-young necessarily diverges from the structure of the novel, but once again sees its heroine driven quietly out of her mind by an oppressive society while encouraged to doubt herself for her desire to seek personal fulfilment, as if those who believe in sexual equality are somehow “mad”, treacherous, and ultimately dangerous to the social order. 

When we first meet everywoman Kim Ji-Young (Jung Yu-mi) she’s in her mid-30s, a housewife with a young daughter. She seems harried, a little frantic and tired but perhaps that’s only to be expected caring for a small child. Her husband, Dae-hyeon (Gong Yoo), however is beginning to worry there’s something seriously wrong. Ji-young has been having dissociative episodes in which she speaks about herself in the third person as if possessed by someone else. Matters come to a head when the condition manifests itself at the home of Dae-hyeon’s parents during the New Year celebrations where Ji-young talks back to her mother-in-law, upset that she’s treated like a servant as soon as Dae-hyeon’s sister and her family arrive, snapping that she both is and has a daughter too and that her mother-in-law should have let her leave before her own daughter turned up so she could visit her mother. Dae-hyeon makes his excuses, later calling to apologise and explain that Ji-young is “ill” and so it would be better if they could give her some space, and drives to Ji-young’s parents where she falls deeply asleep and is thereafter unable to remember what happened at her in-laws’ or understand why Dae-hyeon’s mother didn’t pack them off with a boot full of food as she usually would. 

Dae-hyeon’s mother Mrs. Jeong is an embodiment of the various ways women oppress other women in that she is extremely conservative and overbearing, giving Ji-young an unironic floral apron (free from a bank) as a New Year present, and continually resenting her for being her precious son’s wife. When Dae-hyeon tries to help out with the washing up, Mrs. Jeong is scandalised and Ji-young tries to swat him away out of embarrassment while her mother-in-law mutters about modern men, subtly suggesting that Ji-young must be a bad wife if her husband has to pitch in with housework. She does something similar later when she finds out that Dae-hyeon has offered to take paternity leave so that Ji-young can go back to work in the hope that it will help alleviate some of her malaise, destructively yelling at Ji-young over the phone that she’s ruining her son’s precious career, that what she’s doing is selfish and “mad” in rejecting her proper roles as wife and mother. Chastened, even Ji-young then finds herself telling others that Mrs. Jeong has a point, there’s nothing wrong with her housewife life and she wouldn’t earn as much as Dae-hyeon so perhaps it’s not practical for her to go back to work, but also admitting that she sometimes feels trapped. 

Her own mother, Mi-sook (Kim Mi-kyung), points out that Ji-young studied hard too and had a good job before she gave it up to become a mother so it’s not unreasonable to suggest that they look for some kind of balance in the relationship, but is left feeling responsible in that she unwittingly brought her daughter up with the cognitive dissonance of living in a patriarchal society. Mi-sook wanted to be a teacher, but had to give up her education to pay her brothers’ school fees. Ji-young’s sister Eun-young (Gong Min-jung) had to give up her dreams too becoming a teacher for the steady paycheque, while their affable brother Ji-seok (Kim Sung-cheol) was indulged to infinity and allowed to do whatever he pleased. Only Eun-young has been able to some extent to escape the pattern by remaining unmarried, otherwise we can see a long line of thwarted female ambition, women like Mi-sook forced to sacrifice their hopes and dreams but hoping that their daughters wouldn’t have to. 

Meanwhile, Ji-young can’t win. She takes her daughter to the park and is gossiped about by sleazy businessmen who think women like her have it too easy, living off their husband’s salaries failing to appreciate that work done at home is still work. Dae-hyeon does indeed seem to be a “modern” man, good and kind and genuinely concerned for his wife while also guilty that he has contributed to her “madness” through their married life, but he’s also a product of a patriarchal society and largely unaware of his privilege or its effects no matter how much he struggles against his programming. At work, he’s surrounded by sleazy guys who crack sexist jokes and bitch about their wives while attending sexual harassment workshops which are almost offensive in their superficiality. 

Chief Kim (Park Sung-yeon), Ji-young’s boss and mentor, finds herself in a similar position, derided as a coldhearted ballbuster by the male members of staff who criticise her for allowing someone else to raise her child while she works, while her boss openly insults her during a meeting and is pissed off when she tricks him into admitting he’s been inappropriate. She however laments that she’s trapped in the middle, feeling that she’s “failing” at being a mother while knowing that she’s approaching the glass ceiling, and Ji-young’s colleague complains that it’s taken her much longer to get a promotion than the men who joined alongside her. If all that weren’t enough, they also have to contend with the knowledge that the male office workers have been swapping footage from illegal spy cams placed in the ladies’ loos by a rogue security guard. 

Ji-young flashes back to the various instances of sexism and harassment she’s experienced in her life from being saved as a schoolgirl from an attacker on a bus by an older woman (Yeom Hye-ran) coming to her rescue when all her dad could do was blame her, insisting that it’s her responsibility to keep herself safe not men’s responsibility to behave appropriately, to being questioned why her wrist hurt when women have rice cookers now by a male doctor, and her grandmother telling her girls must be quiet and calm. She internalises a sense of misogyny that forces her to question herself, that perhaps she is at fault in feeling trapped because others found an exit she fears she lacked the ability to find. After a lifetime of patriarchal gaslighting, Ji-young is being driven quietly out of her mind by the cognitive dissonance of feeling so unhappy in having achieved so much “success”. Kim Do-young engineers for her a more positive future than Cho Nam-joo had done in her novel, but makes it all too plain that in escaping the madness of the modern patriarchy you might just have to go “crazy”.


Kim Ji-young, Born 1982 streams in the US via the Smart Cinema app until Sept. 12 as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival. It will also be screened in London on 10th September at Genesis Cinema as a teaser for the upcoming London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

A Witness Out of the Blue (犯罪現場, Fung Chih-chiang, 2019)

“The world is not supposed to be like this” a failed revenger exclaims as he breathes his last in Fung Chih-chiang’s absurdist noir crime thriller A Witness Out of the Blue (犯罪現場) in which the career criminal on the run turns out to be the only noble soul. In a world like this, an eccentric policeman later suggests, good people can commit crimes while those who prosecute or are victimised by them are often no better than that which they claim to hate, eagerly taking advantage of a bad situation to take what they feel at least they are entitled to. 

It all links back to an unsolved murder, one of the many “crime scenes” referenced in the Chinese title. The dead man, Tsui (Deep Ng Ho-Hong), is believed to be part of a gang led by notorious underworld figure Sean Wong (Louis Koo Tin-lok) who was responsible for a botched jewellery store robbery which went south when the police stooge blew his cover trying to stop one of the gang members getting violent with a hostage. Wong shot the undercover policeman and opened fire on the police, eventually escaping our second scene of crime with the loot, while an old lady was so frightened she had a heart attack, and the store assistant who tried to raise the alarm was left paralysed. Police inspector Yip (Philip Keung Ho-man) who ran the undercover operation against Wong’s gang is convinced that Wong killed his associate during a dispute over dividing the loot and is fixated on bringing him in. Eccentric cop Larry Lam (Louis Cheung), however, is not convinced in part because he’s patiently listened to the only eye witness, a parrot, who says Wong didn’t do it. 

Nicknamed “garbage” and apparently a model cop until some kind of accident a few years previously, Lam is certainly an unusual law enforcement officer. For one thing, he’s in deep debt to loan sharks after borrowing money to start a cat sanctuary because he felt sorry for the abandoned felines left to cower in the rain in the face of the world’s indifference. Lam is convinced that he can get the parrot to talk, if only he can figure out how to communicate with it seeing as the only words it knows are “help me”, “genius”, and “idiot”. Based on the parrot’s testimony and his own gut feeling, Lam doesn’t think Wong is guilty so he has three other suspects: the son of the woman who died who works as a butcher at the market, the paralysed store assistant who has since got religion, and her security guard boyfriend (Andy On) who was rendered powerless in the attack, unable to protect her and apparently still carrying an immense amount of anger and resentment towards the criminals. Lam also comes, however, to doubt his superior wondering if his war against Wong is less in the pursuit of justice than revenge for the death of his officer. 

Yip and Wong are in some ways mirror images of each other, the morally questionable cop and the noble criminal. On the run, Wong takes up lodging with a cheerful woman named Joy (Jessica Hsuan) who is visually impaired but seems to think Wong is a good person even though she can’t “see” him. All of Joy’s other residents are extremely elderly, one of them sadly lamenting that the man who previously inhabited Wong’s room died peacefully in his sleep though he was “only 95”. “Money is no use after you die”, they tell him in an effort to persuade him to join in some 100th birthday celebrations, “life is all about contribution”. Quizzed on what he’d do with the money, all Wong wanted was to be able to sleep and as we see he seems to be suffering with some kind of psychosis, experiencing visual and auditory hallucinations of teeming ants and the ghostly voices of his former gang members. Yet he’s not “bad” in the way Yip characterised him to be, he never kills anyone he didn’t have to, is indignant about being accused of betraying his own, and is just as resentful towards Yip as Yip is towards him for the unfairness of his petty vendetta. 

But like all the best crime stories, all there is in the end is futility. The world shouldn’t be like this, but it is the way it is. Maybe Joy and her pensioners have it right, quietly living their lives of peaceful happiness being good to each other while evil developers breathe down their necks trying to destroy even their small idyll of goodness. Wong is drawn to them, but perhaps knows he’ll never belong in their world of infinite generosity though perhaps oddly he’s the only one who doesn’t really seem to care so much about the loot. Still, as Lam has it “Life is full of wonders” like crime-fighting parrots and eccentric policemen who stand in line buying limited edition trainers on behalf loansharks to finance their animal sanctuaries. Good people also break the law. “In memory of lost souls” reads the sign above the final scene of crime, and it’s not without its sense of irony. 


A Witness Out of the Blue streams in the US via the Smart Cinema app until Sept. 12 as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Beneath the Shadow (影裏, Keishi Ohtomo, 2020)

“There’s nothing wrong with leaving it a mystery” the enigmatic presence at the centre of Keishi Ohtomo’s Beneath the Shadow (影裏, Eiri) advises the hero as he vows to look into the unexpected appearance of a fish found swimming in the wrong river. Best known for mainstream blockbusters such as the Rurouni Kenshin series, March Comes in Like a Lion, and Museum, Ohtomo shits towards an arthouse register in adapting the Akutagawa Prize-winning novella by Shinsuke Numata which is in a sense obsessed with the unseen, the hidden details of life and secret sides we all have that are perhaps intended to protect but also leave us vulnerable. 

Konno (Go Ayano), an introverted man in his 30s, has just been transferred to rural Morioka by the pharmaceuticals company at which he works. He keeps himself to himself and largely spends his time caring for a Jasmine plant which appears to have some especial yet unexplained significance. It’s at work that he first encounters the enigmatic Hiasa (Ryuhei Matsuda), reminding him that theirs is a non-smoking building only to discover that Hiasa isn’t the sort to care very much about rules. For some reason or other, Hiasa takes a liking to Konno, turning up at his house with sake, teaching him how to fish, and going on what to anyone else look like dates. Yet when winter comes Hiasa abruptly quits his job and disappears without a word, resurfacing a few months later with a better haircut and a sharp suit explaining that he’s now a top salesman for a suspicious insurance company designed to help pay for expensive ceremonies such as weddings or more commonly funerals. The two men resume their friendship, but soon enough Hiasa again disappears. Only when he’s contacted by a co-worker (Mariko Tsutsui) after the earthquake hoping to find him because it turns out he owes her a large some of money does Konno begin to reflect on how little he might really have known this man he thought a friend. 

“Right from the start you have to groom it so it’s tantalised” Hiasa later explains, operating on several metaphorical levels but talking quite literally about lighting a fire. Konno has to wonder if that’s all it really was, if Hiasa is just a manipulative sociopath playing a long game, getting him on side in case he’d be useful later. When he resurfaces after his first absence, Hiasa eventually asks Konno to sign for one of his policies claiming that he’s one away from his quota and will be getting the can if he can’t fill it despite having talked a big game in proudly showing off a commendation he’d won as a top salesman when he turned up on Konno’s doorstep. “What you see is where the light hit for an instant, no more than that. When you look at someone you should look at the other side, the part where the shadow is deepest”, Hiasa had pointedly told him during a heated fireside conflagration, seemingly hurt as if in the moment he had wanted to be seen and is disappointed to be met with Konno’s irritated rejection, fed up with his mixed signals and distance both emotional and physical. 

Yet Konno is also himself living half in shadow as a closeted man choosing not to disclose his sexuality to those around him. A meeting with an old friend who has since transitioned presumably having embraced her own essential self raises further questions about the reasons he accepted the transfer to Morioka as if he too, like Hiasa, wanted to disappear from his old life and reinvent himself somewhere new, he’s just done it in a more conventional way. Even in contemporary Japan which is in some ways very old fashioned when it comes to the technology of everyday life and with a strong belief in personal privacy it’s surprisingly easy to just vanish at the best of times, but even his family members who are in no hurry to find him wonder if Hiasa may simply have used the cover of disaster to disappear for good. His conflicted brother (Ken Yasuda) affirms he thinks he’s probably alive because he’s “someone who can survive anywhere” which in the way he’s putting it is not much of a character reference. 

The conclusion Konno seems to come to, in a happier epilogue some years later, is that Hiasa himself was perhaps a fish swimming in the wrong waters, unable to adapt to the world around him. Perhaps it’s alright for him to remain a mystery because a mystery was what he was. Konno, by contrast, sets himself free apparently less gloomy, no longer living half in shadow, even if still hung up on the one that got away. A slow burn affair, Beneath the Shadow eventually refuses conflagration in favour of something cooler in accepting that you never really know anyone, perhaps not even yourself, even when you peer into the darkest part of the shadow. In the end you just have to let it go, “the cycle keeps repeating”. 


Beneath the Shadow streams in the US via the Smart Cinema app until Sept. 12 as part of this year’s New York Asian Film festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Beasts Clawing at Straws (지푸라기라도 잡고 싶은 짐승들, Kim Yong-hoon, 2020)

If you found a big bag full of money and then waited a while but no one came to claim it, what would you do? Many people would do as Jung-man (Bae Seong-woo) did, but sometimes gifts from the gods are sent to tempt you and are decidedly more trouble than they’re worth. Beasts Clawing at Straws (지푸라기라도 잡고 싶은 짐승들, Jipuragirado Jabgo Sipeun Jibseungdeul) is an apt way to describe our small group of interconnected protagonists, each desperately trying to get their hands on the money not necessarily for itself but for the power and possibility it represents or simply to free themselves from a debt-laden existence. 

Jung-man finds the Louis Vuitton bag stuffed inside a locker at his part-time job in a bathhouse. It seems that he is feeling particularly powerless because he’s somehow lost the family business and either never told his extremely domineering mother (Youn Yuh-jung) or she’s simply forgotten, often going off on crazed rants about how her daughter-in-law is secretly plotting to kill them all. Meanwhile, across town, immigration officer Tae-young (Jung Woo-sung) is desperately trying to find his missing girlfriend, Yeon-hee (Jeon Do-yeon), who has, apparently, run off with all his money leaving him in a difficult position with vicious loan shark Park (Jung Man-sik), and melancholy hostess Mi-ran (Shin Hyun-bin) is miserably trapped in an abusive marriage and plotting escape with the help of Jin-tae (Jung Ga-ram), an undocumented migrant from China she met in the club. 

As expected the streams will eventually cross, it is all connected, though it’ll be a while before we start to figure out how in Kim Yong-hoon’s tightly controlled non-linear narrative, adapted from the novel by Japanese author Keisuke Sone. Other than the money the force which connects them is powerlessness. Some of them, maybe all, are “greedy” but it’s not necessarily riches that they want so much as a way out of their disappointing lives. Jung-man feels particularly oppressed because he’s made to feel as if he’s failed his father by losing the family business, something he’s constantly reminded of by his ultra paranoid, domineering mother who eventually pushes his wife down the stairs provoking a crisis point in the foundation of the family. If working part-time in a bathhouse in his 40s hadn’t left him feeling enough of a failure, he is further emasculated by being unable to pay his daughter’s university tuition after she fails to win a scholarship and informs them she’s planning to take a term or two off to earn the money by herself. 

Tae-young is in much the same position, humiliatingly trapped by having foolishly co-signed his girlfriend’s loan only for her to disappear off the face of the Earth, leaving him wondering if he’s just a complete idiot or something untoward has happened to her. He thinks he can regain control of the situation by slipping further into the net of criminality, helping an old uni friend who’s committed large-scale fraud escape to China in exchange for a cut of the loot (and secretly plotting to nab the lot with the help of his shady friend Carp (Park Ji-hwan) who works at the club). 

A crisis of masculinity is also behind Mi-ran’s life of misery as her husband takes out his resentment towards his reduced circumstances on his wife, beating her mercilessly while forcing her to work at a hostess bar to pay off their debts from unwise stock market investments. For her, the money is both revenge and a pathway to a better life. She wants to be free of her husband, and profit in the process. Unable to do it alone, she manipulates male power in the lovestruck Jin-tae all too eager to play white knight to a damaged woman. But Jin-tae is male failure too. When all’s said and done he’s still an innocent boy, not quite prepared for the ugliness of causing a man’s death even if he is a wife beating tyrant the world may be better off without. As an undocumented migrant, he’s pretty marginalised too. Taking advice on how to solve the Jin-tae problem, a more experienced player reminds Mi-ran that no one’s coming looking for an illegal alien and it’s not as if she actually likes him so he is infinitely expendable. 

In an odd way, getting the money is about not being an expendable person anymore. They want the money because they think it will give them back a degree of control over their lives, a kind freedom to move forward with a sense of possibility they do not currently have because of all their debts both financial and emotional. Yet they find themselves farcically scrabbling in chaos, beasts clawing at straws, as they try to outsmart each other and the universe to get their hands on the bag. The universe looks on and laughs, rejoicing in its darkly humorous punchline as the bag finds itself another owner, tempted by its dubious charms with only the promise of more chaos to ensue.


Beasts Clawing at Straws streams in the US via the Smart Cinema app Aug. 29 to Sept. 12 as part of this year’s New York Asian Film festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)