Escape from Mogadishu (모가디슈, Ryoo Seung-wan, 2021)

“You think we can accomplish more together?” the North Korean ambassador incredulously asks of the South, realising that if they’re to escape their desperate situation they will temporarily have to put ideology aside. Ryoo Seung-wan’s latest big budget action drama Escape from Mogadishu (모가디슈, Mogadishu) finds the diplomatic staff of a newly democratic South Korea ironically caught up in another nation’s much less peaceful revolution while perhaps confronted by the duplicities of their globalising ambitions even as they realise the North may already have the upper hand when it comes to cultivating relationships with authoritarian regimes. 

As the opening title cards explain, having successfully transitioned into democracy and fresh from its Olympic success the South Korea of 1991 was keen to claim its place on the global stage by joining the UN. Knowing that African votes are important in the process, the ambassador to Somalia, Han (Kim Yoon-seok), is determined to ensure he has that of President Barre in the bag before he finishes out his term. Unfortunately, his attempts are frustrated firstly by a lack of cultural knowledge in his home nation as witnessed by the inappropriate gifts they’ve prepared for the president which include expensive alcohol despite the fact Somalia is a muslim nation, and secondly by the North Koreans who seem to have cultivated a closer relationship with the ruling regime and are keen to ensure South Korea does not get its seat at the UN. 

Meanwhile, it becomes increasingly clear that there is unrest in the country with rebel forces intent on deposing the despotic regime of a military dictator and installing full democracy. The circumstances are in a sense ironic, the rebels and the ordinary citizens who later stage an uprising are only doing the same thing South Korea itself has recently done only they are of course doing it in a much less defensible way with widespread violence culminating in an entrenched civil war. The staff at the embassy therefore find themselves in a difficult position. “At home they turn innocent students into communist spies, think they can’t do that here?” a conflicted staff member advises uncertain as to what to do on realising they may unwittingly be harbouring a rebel soldier while diplomatically unable to declare a clear side. All they can think to do is play a tape from their welcome event describing themselves as friends of the Somalian people in the hope of deflecting rebels’ the anger. 

Nevertheless, the rebels have declared all foreign presences as their enemies for their tacit support of Barre’s regime. Han is certainly guilty of that in cosying up to the government in the hope of winning their vote, while the North Koreans fare little better despite being accused of secretly trafficking weapons to the rebel army while the rebels complain that foreign aid has only been used to facilitate Barre’s ongoing oppression. When the North Korean Embassy is destroyed and the Chinese have already left, the North Koreans are left with no choice other than the unthinkable, asking the South for help. The South, however, is conflicted. If they let them in they’re in danger of breaking the National Security Law and in any case they aren’t sure they can trust the North. “I hear they’re trained to kill with their bare hands” one of the ladies exclaims even doubting the children. But if they refuse to open the gate it means certain death for those who are, if not their fellow countrymen, then in a sense fellow Koreans. 

Based in historical fact, Ryoo’s high tension drama is in essence a division film which makes a strong case for the united Korean family even as the two sides remain somewhat distanced despite making the practical decision to trust each other in order to survive and escape. To do so they each have to make unpalatable political decisions, the South Koreans allowing others to believe the Northerners intend to defect in the hope of additional help from their own side and the wider diplomatic community. Given the opportunity to leave alone, Han nevertheless insists on making space for the North Koreans too unwilling to simply leave them behind. The North Koreans, meanwhile, reveal the reasons they could not defect even if they wanted to in that many of them have been forced to leave children behind in Pyongyang as hostages to ensure their continued obedience to the regime. Han may have gained a degree of enlightenment in realising there are sometimes “two truths” but there’s also an undeniable poignancy on realising that however much they’ve shared, the two men will never again be able to acknowledge each other in public, escaping Mogadishu but forever divided. Shooting in Morocco, Ryoo fully recreates the terror and desperation of being trapped in an unpredictable, rapidly devolving situation while allowing his divided Koreans to find a sense of commonality as they band together in order to escape someone else’s civil war.


Escape from Mogadishu opens this year’s New York Asian Film Festival on Aug. 6 and will thereafter screen at cinemas across the US courtesy of Well Go USA

International trailer (English subtitles)

New York Asian Film Festival Confirms Lineup For 2021 Hybrid Edition

New York Asian Film Festival returns for 2021 in a new hybrid edition with physical screenings taking place at Lincoln Center & SVA Theatre while much of the programme will be available online in the US via Lincoln Center’s Virtual Cinema from Aug. 6 to 22. To mark its 20th anniversary, the festival will also be co-hosting a special outdoor screening of the Tsui Hark classic Dragon Inn AKA New Dragon Gate Inn on Aug.11.

China

  • Anima – a young man becomes an outcast after killing a bear to save his younger brother.
  • A Song for You – a nomad dreaming of becoming a folk singer encounters a young woman resembling the goddess of music who tells him he must record an album in this indie drama from Dukar Tserang.
  • The Old Town Girls – drama in which a teenage girl receives a visit from her estranged birth mother.
  • Rising Shaolin: the Protector – kung fu drama from Stanley Tong in which an innkeeper starts a scam fake robbing passersby so he can rescue them as a means of guiding them towards his inn.
  • Tough Out – documentary following a junior baseball team in Beijing

Hong Kong

  • All U Need is Love – all-star ensemble comedy from Vincent Kok in which a hotel is placed on a 14-day Covid quarantine.
  • Breakout Brothers – the political equilibrium of a prison is shaken by the arrival of a new prisoner
  • Hand Rolled Cigarette – A cynical former British soldier and a South Asian street thief find unexpected solidarity in Chan Kin-long’s gritty neo-noir. Review.
  • Keep Rolling – documentary focussing on the life and career of director Ann Hui. Review
  • Limbo – Morally compromised cops chase a serial killer in the rubbish-strewn junkyards of contemporary Hong Kong in Soi Cheang’s stylish noir. Review.
  • One Second Champion – A dejected single-father with a “useless” superpower finds a new lease of life in the boxing ring in Chiu Sin-hang’s plucky social drama. Review.
  • Shadows – Psychological noir starring Stephy Tang as a psychiatrist with a brain tumour which allows her to enter her patients’ traumatic memories.
  • The Story of Woo Viet – A Chinese-Vietnamese soldier’s dreams of finding love and freedom in the US are frustrated by the legacy of violence in Ann Hui’s fatalistic action drama. Review.
  • Time – an ageing hitman takes up a new career in euthanasia in Ricky Ko’s black comedy. 
  • The Way We Keep Dancing – A collective of artists finds itself torn between complicity and resistance in the face of rising gentrification in Adam Wong’s musical dance drama. Review.
  • Zero to Hero – biopic of gold medal winning-Paralympian So Wa Wai.

Japan

  • The Asian Angel – The lonely souls of Japan and Korea are brought together by angelic intervention in Yuya Ishii’s wistful drama. Review.
  • A Balance – a documentary film director discovers a hidden truth while investigating school violence
  • Blue – A trio of dejected boxers contemplate their place inside and outside of the ring in Keisuke Yoshida’s unconventional boxing drama. Review
  • The Fable: The Killer Who Doesn’t Kill – Junichi Okada returns as the hitman with a no kill mission in Kan Eguchi’s action comedy sequel. Review.
  • From Today, It’s My Turn!! – ’80s set adaptation of the high school fighting manga from Yuichi Fukuda
  • Hold Me Back – latest from Akiko Ohku in which a happily single 31-year-old woman’s peaceful life is disrupted by romance.
  • jigoku-no-hanazono: Office Royale – delinquent office lady comedy drama
  • Joint – A gangster in search of reform finds himself caught between old school organised crime and the shady new economy in Oudai Kojima’s noirish take on yakuza decline. Review.
  • Junk Head – new theatrical edit of the sci-fi horror stop motion animation.
  • Last of The Wolves – sequel to Kazuya Shiraishi’s Blood of Wolves set in 1991 in which a rogue cop attempts to keep the peace between yakuza gangs.
  • Ninja Girl – political satire from Yu Irie
  • Over the Town – An awkward young man chases love and romance on the streets of Shimokitazawa in Rikiya Imaizumi’s soulful ode to the ever changing district. Review.
  • Sensei, Would You Sit Beside Me? – a manga artist pens a story about adultery which causes her husband to wonder if she knows about his ongoing affair with her editor
  • Tonkatsu DJ Agetaro – The nerdy heir to a tonkatsu restaurant finds his heaven on the dance floor in a surprisingly wholesome turn from Ken Ninomiya. Review.
  • Under the Open Sky – A pure-hearted man of violence struggles to find his place in society after spending most of his life behind bars in Miwa Nishikawa’s impassioned character study. Review.
  • Zokki – omnibus movie inspired by Hiroyuki Ohashi’s manga directed by Naoto Takenaka, Takayaki Yamada, and Takumi Saitoh.

Kazakstan

  • Sweetie, You Won’t Believe It – after arguing with his wife a husband gets more than he bargained for while fishing with friends.

Korea

  • The Book of Fish – historical drama from Lee Joon-ik following exiled scholar Jeong Yak-jeon.
  • Escape from Mogadishu – drama from  Ryoo Seung-wan set during the Somalian Civil War in which the North Korean embassy is forced to ask for help from South Korea as they attempt to escape from the capital.
  • Fighter – a North Korean refugee pins her hopes on boxing to bring her father to the South
  • I Don’t Fire Myself – a young woman is determined to stick out a year with a subcontracting company
  • Midnight – thriller in which a deaf woman becomes a target for a killer after witnessing a murder.
  • The Prayer – a caregiving robot is conflicted witnessing a daughter’s exhaustion attempting to care for her mother who has been bedridden for the past decade.
  • Samjin Company English Class – three office ladies pin their hopes on TOEIC to get promoted but end up exposing an industrial scandal in Lee Jong-pil’s ’90s drama
  • Snowball – teenage friendship drama in which three high school girls run away together only for their relationship to descend into bullying and animosity on their return.
  • Ten Months – indie drama charting a game designer’s pregnancy
  • Three Sisters – Three middle-aged women rediscover their sisterly bond when forced to face their traumatic past in Lee Seung-won’s subtle condemnation of a relentlessly patriarchal society. Review.

Malaysia

  • Babi – controversial school violence drama directed by rapper Namewee
  • Barbarian Invasion – Tan Chui Mui directs and stars as an actress making a comeback after retiring to become a housewife and mother only to be told the film can only be made if her ex co-stars.
  • Nasi Lemak 1.0 – Namewee directs a “prequel” to Nasi Lemak 2.0 following 15th century explorer Admiral Cheng Ho

Myanmar

  • Money Has Four Legs – an aspiring film director struggling to complete a project considers robbing a bank.

The Philippines

  • Here And There – A pair of anxious youngsters find lockdown love, or something like it, in JP Habac’s sophisticated, zeitgeisty rom-com. Review.

Singapore

  • Tiong Bahru Social Club – An earnest young man experiences an existential crisis while living in the “happiest neighbourhood in the world” in Tan Bee Thiam’s whimsical satire. Review.

Taiwan

  • As We Like It – A romantic exile meanders through an internet free corner of Taipei in Chen Hung-i & Muni Wei’s all-female adaptation of the Shakespeare play. Review.
  • City Of Lost Things – animated drama in which 16-year-old leaf is swept away to the City of Lost Things where he befriends 30-year-old sentient plastic bag, Baggy.
  • A Leg – relationship drama in which a bereaved wife refuses to let go of the amputated leg of her late husband.
  • My Missing Valentine – A lovelorn woman finds herself forced to reckon with the forgotten past when she somehow misplaces Valentine’s Day in Chen Yu-hsun’s charmingly quirky rom-com. Review.
  • The Silent Forest – An idealistic student is caught between justice and complicity when he uncovers a culture of bullying and abuse at a school for deaf children in Ko Chen-nien’s hard-hitting drama. Review.

Thailand

  • The Con-Heartist – A scorned woman teams up with a fraudster to scam her ex only to fall for the conman in Mez Tharatorn’s crime caper rom-com. Review.

The 2021 New York Asian Film Festival runs at Lincoln Center, SVA Theatre, and online in the US Aug. 6 to 22 with tickets on sale from July 23. Full details for all the films as well as ticketing information will shortly be available via the official website while you can also keep up with all the latest festival news via the official Facebook Page and Twitter account.

Moving On (남매의 여름밤, Yoon Dan-bi, 2019)

Life is a series of partings, but somehow they never seem to get any easier. The heroine of Yoon Dan-bi’s award-winning debut feature Moving On (남매의 여름밤, Nammaewui Yeoreumbam) seems to have already developed a healthy sense of nostalgia for an irretrievable past despite her young age, acutely aware of her silent grandfather’s aching loneliness though somehow unable to ease it. Yet it’s the complicated business of family that she finds herself sorting out one difficult summer while temporarily displaced, living in a sense in the past as her equally lost father attempts to rediscover some kind of foothold in the modern society by moving back into his childhood home.

Teenage Ok-ju (Choi Jung-un) takes one last look around her old apartment before her dad Byunggi (Yang Heung-joo) drives them to grandpa’s, a place and indeed man she doesn’t know particularly well. In fact, she’s worried he might not even know they’re coming. When they arrive, it turns out grandpa isn’t there, he’s in hospital after being struck down by heatstroke. As they will every other time we see them bar the last, Ok-ju and her younger brother Dong-ju (Park Seung-joon) enter the house alone, waiting patiently for their father to come back while still not really quite at home, fearful of causing a disturbance in an unfamiliar environment. When they finally return it seems as if Ok-ju’s hunch might have been right, her father asks grandpa for permission to stay to which he merely gives a few words of assent. 

Byunggi paints their stay as something like a summer holiday, which it is in a way, a brief moment of pause while they figure out what to do next. What he hasn’t told the kids is that he’s broke, selling factory second sneakers on the street in an unsuccessful attempt to make ends meet while he studies to pass an exam to get a better job. They’re piling into grandpa’s two-bed, two-storey home because they don’t have money for rent. Yet like any teenage girl Ok-ju has the usual worries. She wants $700 from her father for cosmetic surgery, partly as she later explains to her aunt Mijung (Park Hyun-young) because the boy she’s been seeing only texts her when she texts him leaving her feeling insecure in her looks and mistakenly believing he’d be more proactive if her eyes were more generic. Later she swipes a pair of her dad’s trainers to give to him as a birthday present, trying to buy his attention, and then another trying to sell them to get the money her dad wouldn’t give her not realising the trainers are fake. The awakening she gets is then two-fold, firstly that she made a huge mistake turning to crime and secondly realising that her dad’s a fraud, a failed businessman who’s resorted to peddling knock offs and moving back in with his father because he can’t support his family. 

Meanwhile, she’s still harbouring a great deal of resentment towards her absent mother who has for unknown reasons left the family. She argues with her cheerful brother Dong-ju who still wants to maintain contact with her, angrily accusing him of having no pride when quite the reverse is true. It’s she who is too proud to admit she misses her mother and too hurt to forgive her for her abandonment. She rejects Dong-ju’s right to choose for himself, insisting that he shouldn’t see their mother because she doesn’t want to, trying to enforce sibling solidarity but only further driving a wedge between herself and her brother as she reduces him to tears in the absurdity of her misplaced rage. With father and mother both discredited, only the arrival of aunt Mijung provides an alternative source of adult reliability but aunt Mijung has problems too, sneaking out at night to drink and smoke while contemplating a middle-aged divorce from her possibly abusive husband. 

There’s an odd kind of symmetry in the secondary family that is thrown together at grandpa’s, Ok-ju and Dong-ju younger versions of Byunggi and Mijung living in their childhood home now cast in the parental roles if somewhat awkwardly. They have each in a sense failed, Byunggi unemployed and separated from his wife and Mijung heading for a divorce. They’ve come “home” to be children again, get a reset on middle-aged disappointment while contemplating future loneliness as they consider the problem of grandpa, asking themselves if he might not be better off in a home as his health declines especially after the kids go back to school and they’ll need to hire a carer. Mijung wants to sell, but it’s impossible to sort the desire to do right by dad from the material lure of turfing him out his own house to unlock its hidden equity. Figuring out what’s going on, Ok-ju is further disappointed in her father. After all, it’s just not right. But he fires back at her that stealing his dad’s house out from under him isn’t so different from what she did when she took the shoes, which is a point but maybe not the one he thinks he’s making. 

Still, sometimes events can overtake you. Walking downstairs late one evening Ok-ju is struck by the sight of her grandfather sitting sadly alone listening to a melancholy song from his youth about lost love, overcome with nostalgia and a deep sense of loneliness, a longing for something or someone perhaps the family of bygone days. The Korean title, “a brother and sister’s summer night”, has its sense of poignancy too as the pair are forced to contemplate summer’s end, processing loss as they adjust to the new normal of their unusual family circumstances Ok-ju finding an adult accommodation with disappointment as she prepares to “move on” from this summer interlude into a much less certain world. Shot with warmth and naturalism, Yoon’s debut captures a family on the brink of disintegration but does perhaps find a kind of solidarity in the siblings’ self-reliance as they face the summer night alone but also together. 


Moving On streamed as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Festival trailer (English subtitles)

Forbidden Dream (천문: 하늘에 묻는다, Hur Jin-ho, 2019)

Technology is a great motivator for social change, which is one reason why there are those who would prefer to shut it down before it exists, afraid of the threat it poses to their own power and status. Best known for tearjerking romantic melodrama, Hur Jin-ho follows historical epic The Last Princess with a quietly nationalistic journey back to the Joseon era in which calls for greater sovereignty perhaps incongruously go hand in hand with progressive politics which see the good king Sejong (Han Suk-kyu) agitate for greater social equality through the democratisation of knowledge. This is his “Forbidden Dream” (천문: 하늘에 묻는다, Cheonmun: haneul-e mudneunda), the existence of a “fair” society in which anyone can read, write and learn regardless of the social class into which they were born.

Apparently inspired by the mysterious disappearance of legendary court inventor Jang Yeong-sil (Choi Min-sik) from the annals despite his close friendship with the king, Hur sets his tale in the 1440s during which time Korea is a tributary of the Ming. The problem with that is that though Korea remains a sovreign nation and Sejong its king, the Ming have positioned themselves as the culturally superior arbiters of knowledge. Facing persistent famines, Sejong is convinced that the key to agricultural prosperity lies in getting rid of the Ming almanac and using their own time zone which is better suited to the Korean Peninsula and will allow their farmers to make the best use of their land. The Ming, predictably, do not like his idea and are forever sending envoys to tell him to stop trying to “improve” on their technology. Nevertheless, he persists which is how he comes to meet Jang Yeong-sil, a technological genius whose innate talent has brought him to the palace despite the fact that he was born a slave. 

In Yeong-sil, the perhaps lonely king Sejong discovers a kindred spirit, the two men quickly, and transgressively, speaking as equals when it comes to developing their new technology. Giddy as schoolboys, they work on their inventions together for the betterment of the people, beginning with building a water clock to better indicate the time when the sun goes down. Sejong frees Yeong-sil and makes him a “5th rank scientist”, gifting him the clothes of a gentleman, but his open hearted egalitarianism sets him at odds with his ambitious courtiers who resent being forced to share their space with a former slave, puffed up on their feudal privileges that convince them advancement is a matter of name and intrigue. 

Just as Hur suggested in The Last Princess that the courtiers sold their country out because of an internalised sense that Korea was small and backward and could not stand alone, so Sejong’s ministers begin to abandon him and turn their fealty to the Ming. Sejong believes in Korean independence, certain that only by standing free can the country prosper and the people be happy. Others however fear Sejong’s “forbidden dream” of a more equal society knowing that it necessarily means a lessening of their own power and the privilege they feel themselves entitled to. Besides timekeeping, Sejong has also been working on a new alphabet which will further set them apart from the culture of the Ming. The ability to read and write using Chinese characters which Sejong feels are not perhaps well suited to Korean has hitherto been reserved for the elite. Sejong’s alphabet which will eventually become the Hangul still in use today removes the barriers to knowledge which ensure the rule of the few can never be challenged while also reinforcing the idea of a cultural Koreanness which is valid in its own right, equal to that of the Ming, and obviously a better fit for his people who will then be able to create glorious inventions of their own. 

Hangul is the “something eternal that no country can take away” that Sejong dreamed of as his legacy, but it’s also the thing that costs him his transgressive friendship with Yeong-sil as his courtiers reject his internal challenge to the social order, favouring the feudal certainties of the Ming over his revolutionary kingship. Undeniably homoerotic in the depths of its sincerity, the attachment of the two men, a slave and a king, is embodiment of Sejong’s forbidden dream as a symbol of a better world where all are free to innovate. “Class does not matter” he tells Yeong-sil as they stare up at the stars, “what matters is that we look at the same sky and share the same dream”. That better world, however, will be a long time coming, Yeong-sil a martyr punished for his class transgression but making a personal sacrifice on behalf of the king who was also his friend so he can bring about his forbidden dream of an independent Korea powered by cutting edge technology created by men like him with fine minds from all walks of life. Well, perhaps there’s still some work to do, but you get there in the end. Anchored by the magnetic performances of its two veteran leads, Forbidden Dream does not entirely escape the pitfalls of the Joseon-era drama with its palace intrigue and complex interpersonal politics, but is at its best when celebrating the intense friendship of two men united by the desire to innovate even if that innovation is not always convenient for the world in which they live.


Forbidden Dream streamed as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Images: © 2020 LOTTE ENTERTAINMENT All Rights Reserved.

Dear Loneliness (致親愛的孤獨者, Lien Chien-hung & Sunny Yu & Liao Che-yi, 2019)

“After 10 years or 20 years, you will feel less lonely. Surely you will not be hurt anymore due to your pure feeling and kindness” a warmhearted bookstore owner (played by literary superstar Lo Yi-chin AKA Lou Yi-chun/Luo Yijun) advises a series of young women in a parting letter, reminding them that the reason they suffer so is only their youth and that too shall pass. Inspired by Hou Chi-jan’s documentary series Poetries from the Bookstores which highlighted 40 Taiwanese indie bookshops, omnibus film Dear Loneliness (致親愛的孤獨者, Zhì Qīn’ài de Gūdú Zhě) features three segments helmed by three promising young directors selected through Dreamland Image’s Storylab featuring three women each consumed by loneliness at differing stages of youth. 

In the first of the stories, 12-year-old Xiaoyu (Lin Chi-en) is introverted and friendless. In common with the heroines of the other two segments, she is disconnected from her family, raised by a grumpy grandpa who hates her reading habit which he sees as a waste of time because it makes no money. Like many of the other girls at school, she has a crush on handsome teacher David (Chung Cheng-Chun) whose obvious enjoyment of the attention he receives has his relatively more authoritative colleague feeling worried enough to ask him if his behaviour isn’t a little inappropriate. Burying herself in romance novels and engaging in mental fantasies of her teacher Xiaoyu struggles with her adolescent desire while firmly rejected by her peer group, the girl on the next desk going so far as to adjust the angle of her selfie to avoid Xiaoyu being caught in the background. The irony is that David may indeed be engaging in inappropriate conduct with his students, just not with Xiaoyu whose jealousy and resentment may accidentally expose him for what he is but leave her even more marginalised. 

Kai-han (Angel Lee), meanwhile, also experiences parental alienation, yelled at by her unsupportive father just at the moment she really needs some help. Having left her small town for uni in Taipei she discovers a girl from the Mainland already in the room she thought was hers. Owing to some kind of mix up, she finds herself abruptly without accommodation with term about while the harried office admin lady is decidedly unhelpful. After taking temporary refuge in a bookshop where she’s berated by her father over the phone who accuses her of being lax with details and bringing this on herself, she decides to try getting the Mainlander to vacate “her’ room, but she is understandably unwilling seeing as she’s paid her rent for the term already. Things take a turn for the unpleasant when Kai-han discovers her wallet missing and after reading a series of xenophobic online comments decides the Mainland girl took it. She tries to get it back, perhaps mistakenly feeling she’s standing up for herself and taking responsibility but incurring only tragic consequences which yield ironic results. 

The oldest of the women, Xiaoxun (Chang Ning) who gives her age perhaps unconvincingly as 20, left her “indifferent” family in Kaohsiung for love, ending up on the fringes of the sex trade because she needed money. Yet she ends up taking a strange job in prison “rehabilitation”, flirting with the various lonely men who request her and vowing to wait for each of them until they get out. Prisoner 2923 (Liu Kuan-ting) is a little different, deep and introspective he forces her to realise that she too is imprisoned. “Each day goes by whether you’re happy or sad” she cheerfully advances, deflecting his questioning until the time runs out. He sends her to a book store, because you can’t recommend the best book, the best book chooses you. Meanwhile, she reflects on her problematic relationship with her ex who is now dating her friend before realising she’s hooked on the mystery of 2923, eventually hearing his story but allowing it to free her from her sense of shame and inertia as she ponders a return to source, perhaps finally meaning it when she tells him too that she will wait for him. 

The three women each experience loneliness and despair at different stages of life, but as the bookseller points out they are all very young. The key to escaping their loneliness, he claims, lies in experience, filling the void with “the fullness of life”. Asked what it is they should do he can’t say, but assures them that he would give them a hug “because you are very precious, you just don’t realise that now”. A strangely life affirming experience, Dear Loneliness is a gentle hand in the darkness pointing the way for those who feel hopeless and alone back towards a place of light and safety to be found, it seems, in your local indie bookshop.


Dear Loneliness streamed as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English/Traditional Chinese subtitles)

Unleashed (地下拳, Kwok Ka-Hei & Ambrose Kwok Yat-Choi, 2020)

Victory lies in letting go in Kwok Ka-Hei & Ambrose Kwok Yat-Choi’s macho boxing drama Unleashed (地下拳). A familiar tale of a gym under threat, a master vulnerable, and a young man indignant, Unleashed isn’t claiming to be original but eventually wanders in an unexpected direction with the entrance of a young aspiring actress who finds herself at the mercy of a predatory industry, taking refuge in the ring as she undergoes research for an upcoming role as a top assassin. 

Fok Kit (Sun Zhen-Feng), the hero, is a champ of the underground boxing circuit living with his master Tak-bo (Ken Lo Wai-Kwong) at a struggling gym. When their landlord, Mr. Ho (Mok Wai-Man), comes calling, Tak-bo assumes he’s putting up the rent but the reality is even worse. Ho wants to sell the property after receiving an offer too good refuse, but he is willing to sell it to Tak-bo first if he can come up with the money. While the bank agree to loan him almost enough, Tak-bo is running a little short when he’s approached by an old pupil, Lok (Sam Lee Chan-Sam), with an offer of his own. He wants Fok Kit to face off against his guy Surat (Zheng Zi-Ping), a Thai boxer with a fearsome reputation. Tak-bo is reluctant, fearing for Fok Kit’s safety after hearing rumours that Surat killed a man in the ring, while it also turns out that there may be bad blood between himself and Lok who has not long got out of prison after being convicted of drug smuggling. Meanwhile, Fok Kit has taken on a new pupil, Effy (Venus Wong Man-Yik), who wants to join the gym to learn all the boxing she needs to know to convince in her role as an assassin in an upcoming movie. 

Left with no other options, Tak-bo gives in and lets Fok Kit fight Surat, but it goes just as badly as it could possibly go and not only does he lose but is rendered paralysed. In true boxing movie fashion, Fok Kit shifts from petulant unwillingness to undergo a risky operation that might allow him to walk again, to a full recovery and the desire for a rematch, but his scars are as much psychological as physical leaving him afraid to fight, seeing Surat’s smug grin in every challenger that swings a punch. He freezes, knocked out by even the weakest of opponents. Effy, meanwhile, is on an emotional rollercoaster of her own. The sleazy director she’s working with takes against her when she rejects his inappropriate advances, having all her scenes reshot and even using them as an excuse to use physical violence against her under the pretext of movie making. He eventually gets his comeuppance when a video of his behaviour is leaked and goes viral, but his drunken act of revenge, from which Fok Kit is unable to protect her because of his unaddressed trauma, may yet cost Effy her big break in leaving her with a prominent facial scar. 

As Tak-bo keeps telling him, however, the most important tool in boxing is not physical strength but passion, just as a good actor needs heart and dedication. “Clench your first too tight you may lose everything” Tak-bo insists gently guiding Fok Kit towards the power of letting go while he himself admits he’s been holding on to an insecurity that kept him out of the ring. A fear of losing, rather than the convenient excuse of his leg injury, had him give up the fight only now deciding that he’s tired of hiding from failure. If they want to save the boxing gym, they’ll have to face their respective fears in the form of the irredeemable big bad that is Surat, a total vacuum of humanity and unstoppable killing machine. The greedy and soulless are eventually made to pay a heavy price for their betrayal of the craft, while those who have true passion eventually prosper. Never quite managing to marry its twin plot strands with Effy’s desire to fight back against a sexist and exploitative industry taking a backseat to Fok Kit’s manly drama as he struggles to regain his confidence by beating his trauma in the ring, Unleashed moves swiftly towards it wholly expected finale but consistently lands its blows even in its willing conventionality.


Unleashed streamed as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English/Traditional Chinese subtitles)

Images: © 2020 Orchid Tree Media

Wild Sparrow (野雀之詩, Shih Li, 2019)

“Sparrows are wild birds so they keep hitting against the cage” the introspective hero of Shih Li’s Wild Sparrow (野雀之詩, Yě Què Zhī Shī) is told while perhaps witnessing the same effect in his own life as his flighty mother tries but repeatedly fails to break free of the various forces which constrain her. Young Han’s mother is, in some ways, an embodiment of a destructive modernity, wandering into his rural paradise and then eventually dragging him away from it towards the dubious promise of the city where birds meant to fly free flutter against the bars but rarely find escape. 

Han (Kao Yu-hsia) has been living with his great-grandmother deep in the Taiwanese mountains, but as much as she loves him she’s getting old and, owing to rural depopulation, the local school is set to close the following term so all things considered it’s best if he goes to live with his mother, Li (Lee Yi-chieh), in the city. Questioned by the neighbourhood ladies, however, Han doesn’t want to go. After all, he doesn’t really know his mother all that well. She rarely visits, and in any case she doesn’t seem terribly keen to have him. While out walking one day he hears the frantic squawking of birds caught in a net, taken away by a mysterious man. Finding a sparrow injured on the ground he takes it home and attempts to nurse it back to health, but shortly after his mother’s visit the bird passes away. He takes it into the forest in a shoebox and builds it a cairn, gazing at the birds flying free above the canopy.  

Han asks his great-grandmother why someone would capture wild birds, but she simply tells him not to. The birds are the guards of the gods of the land, sent out to hunt demons that force people to eat dirt, she explains. At the marketplace where his great-grandmother sells her bamboo, Han comes across a man selling caged birds for the purpose of being set free as part of a Buddhist ritual, Han’s face contorting in confusion as he ponders the irony. In the city all he ever sees are birds in cages, much as he perhaps feels himself to be taken out of his natural environment and imprisoned in the urban landscape where his mother alternates between neediness and resentment, so obviously ill-equipped to care for a soon-to-be teenage son while continually conflicted in the contradictions of her life. 

When Han first arrrives, Li makes a point of introducing him to her current boyfriend, Kun, wealthy and much older than her though kind to Han if slightly patronising in his gift of a remote control car for which he is probably a little old and in any case not much interested. A thoroughly rural boy, Han is also mystified by the upscale restaurant they take him to where he is embarrassed to admit he has no idea how to eat the steak that’s been ordered for him. While Li entertains fantasies of marriage, we realise that Kun seems to already have a family and as much as he makes the effort with Han Li is not much of an escape from his domestic responsibilities if she’s also hoping he’ll be a father to her son. Li returns to her life as a bar hostess, often leaving Han home alone and returning late drunk to resentfully yell at him that perhaps her life would have turned out differently if he were not around. She becomes involved with various dangerous men, eventually pushed into sex work by a violent boyfriend who stalked her while working at the club. Han finds himself witnessing his mother with her lovers as she disregards his presence, seeking temporary escape in the arms men while he can only lock himself inside his room, cowering on his bed framed behind bars like a bird resigned to the cage.  

Yet on his return to his mountain paradise he’s distressed to realise the body of the sparrow he buried is no longer in the cairn, comforted only by his grandmother’s assertion that it has already returned to the sky. Death is nothing to be afraid of she tells him, for the dead will always protect the living. Gaining a lesson in life, death, and transience, Han remains imprisoned, framed within the window of his grandmother’s cottage as he watches a soul free itself and return to its natural home, but retains his wildness in his own compassionate desire for freedom, fluttering against the bars if not yet able to escape.


Wild Sparrow streamed as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English/Traditional Chinese subtitles)

Images: © Dot Connect Studio Ltd.

Miss Andy (迷失安狄, Teddy Chin, 2020)

“The things we like we’re still going to lose” according to a drunken young man lamenting youthful impossibility in Teddy Chin’s melancholy tale of marginalisation and frustrated hope, Miss Andy (迷失安狄). A Malaysian-Taiwanese co-production, Chin’s sensitive drama allows its disparate protagonists to find a sense of security in the solidarity of an accidental family, but all too quickly reminds us that despair is the enemy of love and that a lack of faith in human connection can undermine even the most genuine of bonds in those who can no longer believe in future happiness. 

The titular “Miss Andy”, Evon (Lee Lee-zen), has certainly had her share of disappointment. Now 55, she transitioned five years previously following the death of her wife but both of her grown-up children have since disowned her. Having lost her livelihood, she’s had no choice other than to resort to sex work in order to make ends meet, finding herself on the receiving end of male violence from her clients only then to be arrested with the man insisting that he was only defending himself against her advances and attempt to rob him while the unsympathetic police officer dead names and berates her with homophobic slurs. She is eventually forced to strip and expose her genitals while half the station gawp and take photos. Evon decides to give up on sex work and advises her friend Lucy to do the same, but she refuses to see the danger and is later murdered by a man who solicited her for sex. 

Feeling totally alone, Evon tries to claim her position in society, insisting on receiving her pay from her previous employer who tries to short-change her justifying herself with more transphobic slurs. Evon has only one other friend, Teck (Jack Tan), a young man with a hearing impairment who offers her additional work as a delivery driver during which she encounters a little boy looking longingly at some pastries in a small store by a petrol station. She decides to buy one for him, but the boy has gone when she returns. Later that night, however, she gets a surprise discovering the boy and his mother having snuck into her apartment after stowing away on the truck. Hearing that they’ve escaped an abusive relationship and have nowhere else to go she invites them to stay.

Sophia (Ruby Lin), the boy’s mother, is an undocumented migrant from Vietnam. She’s struck by the unlikely miracle of Evon because her name sounds a little like the Vietnamese for hope, something on which she was beginning to give up. We see her telephone her family, but her father only angrily demands more money, eventually passing the phone over to her sister who unsentimentally tells her that her mother has died. All the rest of the family were with her, only Sophia was absent. Feeling just as alone as Evon she is grateful for her kindness, swearing to find a job to repay it while cooking and cleaning as a means of saying thank you. 

Later joined by Teck and anchored by Sophia’s young son Kang who is the same age as the granddaughter Evon is rarely allowed to see, they begin to become a family, united in their sense of marginalisation each in some way rejected by mainstream society. Evon religiously buys lottery tickets using the birthdays of her wife and children as numbers in the hope they’ll eventually come up and she’ll somehow win her family back. Even Sophia who had perhaps not dared to dream of a brighter future eventually joins in as they idly fantasise about the kind of home they’d build if they actually won while sitting in an upscale furniture store before the server at a festive restaurant offers to take a picture of their “family”, but when that sense of possibility finally presents itself the illusion is shattered. Desperation undermines their fragile bond, pushes them towards doubt and betrayal, no longer able to believe in the viability of simple human goodness or mutual support as mechanisms for living but suddenly selfish and self-destructive destroying everything they’d built in mistakenly staking all on the vague possibility of material comfort.

Asked about her dreams, Evon had only stated that she wanted a safe and stable life but what she craved was the sense of togetherness and acceptance she felt with Sophia and Kang while her children continue to reject her and she finds herself marginalised by a conservative society that refuses to affirm her existence as a transgender woman. Bathed alternately in the melancholy neon of the outside world and the golden warmth of Evon’s apartment, Miss Andy leaves its marginalised protagonists wounded, pushed into acts of self harm having lost all faith in the veracity of simple human connection corrupted by the fear and despair of an unforgiving society ruled by inequality and prejudice. 


Miss Andy streamed as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Rom (Ròm, Trần Thanh Huy, 2019)

“Life is built out of a mountain of sorrow” according to an ironically cheerful drinking song in Trần Thanh Huy’s gritty coming-of-age drama Rom (Ròm). Set on the margins of an increasingly prosperous city, Trần’s debut feature which draws inspiration from his 2012 short 16.30 spins a dark tale of displaced children, the persistent unfairness of life, gangsters and games of chance, but ultimately finds little hope save the perfection of the art of survival as the variously troubled denizens of a Saigon slum quite literally bet their lives on a slim chance for a better life with only the false promise of a better tomorrow to make their lives worth living. 

At 14, Ròm (Trần Anh Khoa) has been living alone on the streets since he was four, left behind by his parents after the slum they were living in was demolished. Drawing childish family pictures, Ròm still waits opposite the place where he used to live for his parents to return, pledging to find them when gets enough money. He is grateful to the people of the slum who have “allowed” him to stay mostly because he once gave someone a tip for a winning lottery number. Numbers haunt him, always looking for signs as he is. Meanwhile, he makes his money as one of a small number of runners for the illegal underground lottery, ferrying orders between customers and middlemen brokers praised when numbers he recommends come up but beaten when they don’t as if it were really his fault. 

As Ròm tells us, the slum dwellers are obsessed with the lottery because it’s their one opportunity to change their lives. They bet everything, even writing out “loan agreements” to go along with the ticket request staking their whole apartments with sometimes tragic consequences, an old woman hanging herself after learning her numbers didn’t come up and she may have lost her home. The other residents, however, later pray to her spirit and petition it to give them some tips from the other side, aware of the risks but playing anyway because this fragile hope is all they have. Meanwhile, times are changing. The slum is to be cleared, but there appears to be an ongoing dispute with the developers as to proper compensation for their relocation with many irate that they’ve been cheated by men in sharp suits who think they’re too stupid to notice. 

Eventually the slum’s problems begin to converge, youthful thugs in league with the ruthless developers contributing to the destruction of the world in which they live. Ròm finds himself at the mercy of an athletic rival, Phuc (Nguyễn Phan Anh Tú), who considers himself lucky in that both his parents are already dead so at least unlike Ròm he has no need to wait around for a return to a different life and already has his own kind of freedom. Their desperation forces them against each other, running and cheating in order to survive but the cocky Phuc eventually finds himself falling victim to a suave older gangster who suckers him in a poker game and then forces him into a debt he can’t afford. Not much older than they are, the petty gangster is perhaps a sign of things to come, a symbol of possible corruption in the legacy of violence that traps both boys in a vicious cycle of hope and futility. 

They are all, in a sense, displaced. The slum will be cleared, but only because the land is valuable not because anyone is very interested in improving the lives of those living in extreme poverty. Ròm continues to yearn for his parents, prepared quite literally to burn the world in which he lives in order to find them while accidentally bonding with an unexpected maternal figure who takes him in while facing desperation of her own in caring for a son with a terminal illness only to offer him perhaps false hope in the possibility of reuniting with his family but only for a price. Life is indeed an insurmountable mountain of sorrow, every relationship a potential betrayal and every hope ripe for the shattering. Ròm caused some minor controversy on its release, fined for having submitted itself to the Busan Film Festival without having first cleared domestic censorship, eventually passed only after cutting a few scenes depicting “social evils” of which there are still a multitude. An unforgiving view of modern day Saigon, Ròm leaves its hero perpetually on the run, a lonely child without hope or direction fuelled only by self belief and rapidly running out of road. 


Rom streamed as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Gone with the Light (被光抓走的人, Dong Runnian, 2019)

What is love, and in the end does it really matter? It’s a question the mostly middle-aged couples of Gone with the Light (被光抓走的人, Bèi Guāng Zhuāzǒu de Rén) who perhaps assumed they were past such existential questioning find themselves contemplating after an unprecedented event causes the disappearance of seemingly random people from all over the world giving rise to the rumour that those taken were those truly in love. But if that’s so, what does it mean for the overwhelming majority left behind, suddenly lonely and uncertain wondering if they’ve been spared or judged and found wanting for their lack of emotional fulfilment. 

At 10am one spring morning, a brief flash of light creates a slight temporal disturbance causing a small percentage of the population to simply vanish. No one knows what happened or where they’ve gone, but the connection is later made that many seem to have been taken in pairs giving rise to the theory that the disappeared are the only true lovers. This is a minor problem for some of the left behind who have lost spouses twice over, not only literally but emotionally in realising that their loved one was in real, deep love with someone else. Meanwhile, those not taken begin to wonder why, questioning the validity of their relationships, doubting that their loved ones really love them but not quite daring to ask the same question in reverse. 

Dong opens the film with a vox pop session questioning several people about the nature of love, some of whom we’ll get to know better and others not. Our hero, school teacher, Wenxue (Huang Bo), unconvincingly claims that he does not put any stock in the admittedly unscientific theory that only true lovers were taken and that the rumours have not affected him or his wife but as we later see they have profoundly unsettled his unexceptional, middle-class family life which was at least superficially happy or perhaps merely unhappy in the most ordinary of ways. Before the light, we see him annoy his wife by waking her up smoking in bed before they have perfunctory, routine sex over which they discuss Wenxue’s hopes for promotion and whether or not it’s appropriate to schmooze with the headmaster to smooth the path. The fact they weren’t chosen eventually becomes a kind of embarrassment, the promotion going to a man whose wife disappeared on him for the slightly strange reason that being betrayed in love somehow grants him the moral high ground. Wenxue, like many, goes to great lengths to excuse himself, getting a fixer to photoshop pictures of his wife along with train tickets to make out she was in another town when the light descended.

Meanwhile, Li Nan (Wang Luodan), a woman who was in the middle of trying to divorce her husband when the light struck finds herself accosted by his mistress (Huang Lu) demanding to know where he is seeing as he did not ascend with her. The obvious conclusion is that he had another woman, but the quest forces each of them to reassess their true feelings towards the missing man, the mistress desperate to prove she wasn’t just an “adulteress” but a woman in love, and the wife that she really is ready to let him go. A young woman (Li Jiaqi) who threatened to commit suicide by jumping off a roof when her parents tried to stop her marrying her boyfriend (Ding Xihe) suddenly doubts her feelings when her parents disappear together while she and the man she thought she loved are left behind. A petty thug (Bai-ke), in the only subtle implication of a same sex love, becomes obsessed with the idea that his friend has been murdered by a TV presenter who had been bothering him and his death has been covered up to look like one of the disappearances, perhaps again hoping to find evidence against a romantic rejection. 

Talking to another man in a similar situation Wenxue is given a dressing-down, reminded that he’s been extremely self-involved and that the problems he’s now able to see in his marriage thanks to the light were there all along, only now he’s refusing to face them in a much more direct way. He couldn’t or chose not to see that his wife was lonely and filled with despair while flirting with an equally lonely woman at work. His confrontation with her provokes his only real moment of emotional reckoning as they each reflect on the fantasy of romance and its capacity to dissipate when realised. Walking in on his teenage daughter getting dumped for the first time he’s perhaps in the best position to offer advice, even if it’s of the fairly prosaic kind to the effect that she’ll get over it in time. “Your lies make me ashamed” she’d fired back at her parents’ middle-aged hypocrisy, a very ordinary marriage in which perhaps the “love” has gone, in one sense, but equally might be succeeded by something else. “It’s alright, you will know it in the future” Wenxue tells his heartbroken daughter but might as well be talking to himself, beginning to feel the love after love in conceding that perhaps this is what “love” is rather than any kind of “rapture” literal or otherwise. A beautifully pitched meditation on the consequences of love, the madness, violence, and loss, Gone with the Light finds its release in stillness and a gentle contemplation of that which remains when everything else is burned away. 


Gone with the Light streamed as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (Simplified Chinese subtitles only)