Tiong Bahru Social Club (中峇鲁俱乐部, Tan Bee Thiam, 2020)

“How can you simply approve all these claims, we can’t make everyone who complains happy!” the hero of Tan Bee Thiam’s surreal happiness satire Tiong Bahru Social Club (中峇鲁俱乐部) is admonished by his boss, a claim he will ironically later discover to be truer than he knows. It’s certainly true that the modern world has become somewhat complicated, but do you really need an algorithm to teach you how to be happy or more to the point can you truly feel “happiness” without a computer readout validating your feelings? That’s a question which only belatedly occurs to young Bee (Thomas Pang) when he takes a job at strange new social program aiming to create the happiest neighbourhood in the world but also sinisterly insisting that “everyone’s happiness is our business”, which it quite literally is. 

The Tiong Bahru Social Club is marketed partly as a retirement community set in the famous 1920s art deco colonial district. Promising to “put the unity back in community” they aim to foster an old fashioned village spirit. The reason Bee has decided to work for them, partly at the behest of his widowed mother with whom he still lives, is that he’s just turned 30 and needs to think of the future. The Social Club offers a speedy career track, high pay, and good benefits including food and accommodation which make it a much more promising option than his old job at the laundry even though he likes the sense of order and progress he feels listening to the predictable rhythm of the machines. Asked for a loyalty card at a supermarket checkout he proudly declares that he has “no passion” yet as his mother reminds him even as a little boy he was the type who just wanted everyone to be happy even if he ended up hurt. 

Such a temperament might make him an ideal recruit, as the algorithm seems to believe, but Bee is ill-prepared for the bizarre uncanniness of the cult-like Tiong Bahru society in which he’s guided by an AI assistant and asked to wear a ring which measures his happiness level and positive impact on others. His first assignment is looking after a grumpy old woman who, on the surface at least, isn’t really invested in the Happiness Movement and claims she’s only in it for the freebies. The problem may be, however, that Ms. Wee (Jalyn Han) is already in a sense “happy” in that she no longer cares very much about what other people think and is completely comfortable in herself if perhaps lonely and missing the various cats of her life, eventually enlisting Bee to steal one from the guy running a cat tours stand who later gets fired for not generating enough happiness. The other obvious problem with the Social Club is that, as an old-fashioned, iconic building it hasn’t been very well adapted for those using wheelchairs or experiencing problems with mobility, both factors which might make it more difficult for their elderly residents to feel “happy”. Meanwhile, Bee’s own happiness rating is adversely affected by the nature of the program kept in a constant state of anxiety that he might be for the chop if he doesn’t spread enough joy. 

In a slice of irony, Bee’s mother remains behind alone in the Pearl Bank building, a landmark of ‘70s high rise architecture now in a state of disrepair and the subject of a possible block buy by developers who presumably intend to tear it down (the real building was indeed demolished in March 2020 with a new high rise pending). The older residents mainly want to sell while the younger insist the building should be preserved for its historical value while feeling the loss of their community. As his AI assistant Bravo 60 tells him, Bee is now “successful” in that, having gained a promotion, he’s found his place in the community, is living in a nice apartment with a “perfectly matched partner” (selected for him via the algorithm), and has a job that gives him purpose but Bee doesn’t feel like he “deserves” it. If it’s all already decided, by the stars or by an algorithm then what’s the point? All he sees is emptiness. His life is micromanaged to an infinite degree, even given a diagram explaining how to make love to his new girlfriend in the way that generates the most happiness while his boss (and Bravo 60) look on in judgement from above. 

Yet, it’s emptiness that Bee eventually comes to appreciate as the force which in its own way gives his life meaning. Gradually disillusioned with the Social Club in which “happiness” is a matter of cynical manipulation he opts for something a little less neat in which happiness is no one’s business but his own, the slow and steady march of the Happiness Movement not withstanding. Featuring fantastic production design by A Land Imagined’s James Page filled with retro neon along with the cutesy heightened pastel colour scheme with its mix of calming yellows and the very ‘80s pink and blue, Tan’s quirky exploration of the fallacy of the “happiness index” subtly critiques the contemporary society along with an empty authoritarianism, subversively undercutting a socially conservative culture in the inclusion of two smiling, waving men on their balcony as Bee is reminded of his “perfectly matched partner”. Happiness is not a matter of order or design but perhaps there might be something in that sense of “community” if fostered by genuine fellow feeling and compassion rather than a system of penalty and reward brokered by “social credit”. 


Tiong Bahru Social Club screened as part of the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English / Simplified Chinese subtitles)

yes, yes, yes (Akihiko Yano, 2021)

“If everything goes, then why are we even alive?” the young hero of Akihiko Yano’s yes, yes, yes asks himself as his family finds itself struggling under the weight of intense grief. Yet it’s in family that he finally finds his solace and the will to continue living even if life is meaningless or hard or sad. Hard and sad is an accurate description of their life at the present time as each of the family members tries to process the imminent loss of their mother who has recently entered a hospital she seems to fear she may not leave.

To begin with, the family are trying to remain cheerful as they move mother Sayuri (Nahoko Kawasumi) into her new hospital room, but youngest son Takeaki (Kazuma Uesugi) finds he cannot stomach the false jollity especially after his mother attempts to say a prayer for him. Walking off in a huff, he returns home only to take out his frustrations on a patch of flowers before dramatically taking a pair of scissors to his hair which he then dyes blond much to his father’s consternation. Meanwhile, oldest daughter Juri (Minami Inoue), ironically a hairdresser and pregnant with her first child which she plans to raise alone, does the family shopping, her father Masaaki trying to keep it together waiting in the car. 

There are perhaps already cracks in the family structure, patriarch Masaaki (Kazunari Uryu) seemingly a violent authoritarian who physically attacks his son after spotting his improvised new hairstyle, sending him running up the stairs to barricade himself in his room by jamming the door with his bed in a manoeuvre which seems somewhat practiced. Masaaki also doesn’t like it that his daughter plans to have a child out of wedlock, angrily reexplaining that he won’t stand for it though this is clearly not the the time. Juri reiterates that she’s made her decision, but takes offence at his apparent reasoning that he somehow blames her and the baby for his wife’s death as if only so many places are available in their family and they’re awarded on a first in first out basis. For him it’s as if the baby is here to replace Sayuri, kicking her out in a peculiar slice of cosmic irony. 

Yet as she tells Takeaki who asks her a similar question, he should be happy that their family is expanding. She resents the way the men seem to have monopolised their grief, feeling that it’s hardest of all for their mother and for her part she’s made up her mind not to cry. Sayuri meanwhile is struggling to accept her terminal diagnosis on her own, brought to a sudden realisation during an emotional phone call with Takeaki in which she tries to reassure him that she won’t die while he insists that if it’s come to this immense grief he’d rather that they’d never met at all. He can’t bear that his mother’s existence will be reduced to mere objects, the old voicemails and photos, the gifts and heirlooms. If all that’s left of us is stuff, he asks, what was the point of any of it?

Nevertheless, it’s in transitory human warmth that he eventually finds his reason. Chastened by his wife who tearfully apologises for having married him and subjected him to this grief, Masaaki begins to reassume his role as the father, taking responsibility for his family in finally deciding to welcome Juri’s child as one of his own while embracing his wounded son even as the ghost of the still living Sayuri inhabits their living room looking on at their fierce battle of grief. Shooting in a crisp black and white, somehow detached from the intense emotions at the film’s centre, Yano contrasts the family’s disparate sense of existential loneliness with brief pillow shots of cherry blossom in bloom, the rolling seas on the beach where the family took their last happy photo, and blinking fireworks as if to signal the brevity but also the force, joy, and colour of an ordinary existence. As Sayuri comes to accept death, her son comes to accept life, determined to live to the full so that he can be grateful he was born. A moving tale of learning to live with grief, yes, yes, yes, eventually makes makes the case for life even if it’s hard or sad but also for the saving power of human warmth however transitory it may be.


yes, yes, yes screened as part of the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Way We Keep Dancing (狂舞派3, Adam Wong, 2020)

In a Hong Kong already under threat, a small community of artists finds itself torn over how best to preserve their culture and way of life amid the seemingly unstoppable wave of gentrification that threatens to engulf them in Adam Wong’s quasi-sequel to his 2013 hit The Way We Dance, The Way We Keep Dancing (狂舞派3). Cheekily titled The Way We Dance 3 in the original Chinese, The Way We Keep Dancing takes place in an alternate reality in which a part two has already been released and follows the fortunes of alternate versions of the earlier film’s stars as they each fight their own battles while finding themselves conflicted over the future direction of their community. 

As the film opens, rapper Heyo (Heyo) receives a tip-off from a friend that the disused industrial building in which he and others are illegally squatting is about to be raided by the police. Later talking to a journalist, he explains that the “apartment” only has a sofa because sleeping there would technically be against the code of usage for former industrial buildings, though it’s obvious that he does indeed “live” there. A member of the “KIDA” (Kowloon Industrial District Artists) community he like others is acutely aware of the increasing gentrification of the local area which threatens to push bohemian artists like himself further out of the city. Yet no one seems to have come up with a united means of resistance, previous protests apparently having proved largely ineffective. 

It’s perhaps for this reason that he, along with the dance stars “returning” from the first movie, is later convinced to begin working with the Urban Renewal Bureau on a new project entitled “Dance Street” which, they are told by YouTuber mastermind Leung (Babyjohn Choi), will bring public attention to the local dance subculture and give them greater leverage to preserve their place within the community. Not all are convinced, however, with other local artists deriding them as sell outs conspiring with the developers who are, after all, subverting everything they stand for in repackaging hip hop and street culture to make it marketable to a mainstream audience of the kind that will eventually be buying and investing in the upscale apartments they presumably plan to build after tearing down disused industrial structures. This conflict comes to the fore when Leung gets the gang involved in promoting a new “Hip Park” which will apparently have a skate bank and graffiti area crassly commodifying the unique creative spirit of the Industrial District while deliberately confining it to a single location, sanitised and controlled. 

Meanwhile, aspiring dancer Hana (Cherry Ngan Cheuk-ling) has become a minor star since the release of The Way We Dance and its sequel, a popular celebrity with a small internet following. Somewhat naive and swept along alternately by her agent Terese and the persuasive Leung, she finds herself torn between her loyalty to her old dancemates and the demands of her rising fame. Terese makes it clear that the agency is only really interested in her while she keeps trying to find opportunities for her friends but also finds herself an accidental figurehead of the Dance Street movement because of her minor celebrity. Like others she is convinced that collaboration is the answer, not quite understanding its duplicities until directly confronted by the odious “call me Tony” head of the development board who embarks on a crass down with the kids routine in order to sell his new brand as a hip urban space for trendy young professionals while the artists are pushed even further into the margins. 

There is perhaps a further meta commentary to be read into Wong’s gentrification debate in the light of Hong Kong’s changing status and relationship to the Mainland in which many feel the local character and culture is being slowly erased. In any case, though including a series of large-scale set pieces, Wong concentrates less on dance than the plight of the KIDA community shooting shaky handheld footage of Heyo as he wanders the city in search of inspiration but encounters both hostility and disappointment from his fellow artists before eventually making the decision to rebel against the Dance Street project and his own unwilling complicity with its slightly dubious aims. Nevertheless, even if slightly ambiguous Wong eventually returns his dancing heroes to their roots as a small boy whose dreams may have been dashed by Leung’s thoughtless machinations dances defiantly amid the ruins . 


The Way We Keep Dancing screened as part of the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English / Traditional Chinese subtitles)

Images: Golden Scene Company Limited © 2020

JOINT (Oudai Kojima, 2020)

The yakuza is in some senses at least an outdated institution long thought to be on its way to extinction, some positing that the coronavirus pandemic may be the final nail in the coffin. Organised crime is however nothing if not resourceful and facing post-war decline has long been sliding into corporatised legitimacy. As Oudai Kojima’s JOINT points out, however, the line between legitimate business and illicit enterprise has become increasingly thin especially when it comes to the usage of today’s most valuable commodity, our data. 

Emerging from two years in prison, middle-aged Take (Ikken Yamamoto) took a job ripe with symbolism in “deconstruction” on the invitation of a friend who has apparently managed to escape the criminal underworld for a respectable life as a “financier” with a wife and child. Having saved a small nest egg, however, Take soon makes his way back to the Tokyo underworld, good jobs being hard to find for ex-cons, where he attempts to remain on the fringes of the gangster world working as a kind of freelancer for the Oshima clan while not technically a member of the yakuza. Getting back in touch with an old underling and a Korean friend running a restaurant as a hub for the migrant community, he finds himself getting involved in the yakuza’s latest big business innovation trafficking big data to be used to facilitate large-scale fraud usually against the elderly. The thing about data is that it’s only pieces of a puzzle, the various lists of names with phone numbers, emails, and addresses etc are not worth much individually but coupled with related datasets giving a fuller picture of an individual life they are a veritable goldmine. Pulling together his various resources Take soon becomes a major data broker known for comprehensive documents. 

Ultimately, however, he wants out of the criminal underworld and decides to invest his money in venture capital through a start up working with, yes, big data but this time to be used for the purposes of advertising and marketing. His gangster life and supposed fresh start are in fact based on the exact same source, and who’s to say that illicitly collecting information and using it to sell us more stuff we don’t want or need is really any better than using it to commit fraud. Big data is indeed big business, and its possession it turns out to be as dangerous and contested as any other illicit substance from drugs to black market booze back in the post-war yakuza heyday. 

To signal their commitment to moving on, the Oshima gang has already attempted to clean up its act by exiling old school, violent elements but their efforts have only created a further destabilisation in the criminal underworld as the “traditional” yakuza fight back by founding their own gang rooted in violence and vice. Take has one foot in one foot out of the yakuza life, yet sees fit to pontificate on the code of gangsterdom unable to understand why his old contacts have become so toothless unwilling to take a stand or claim revenge when one of their own is murdered by a rival intent on taking over both their turf and the big data business. Meanwhile, Jinghui, the Korean restaurant owner struggles to support the migrant community who, like Take, find it difficult to secure legitimate work, and ends up working with a third gangster conglomerate which is entirely staffed by foreign nationals themselves intensely marginalised in an often hostile society. They see fit to take things one step further by tapping data at source through tampering with routers to funnel it directly to them. 

The “information war” sees no sign of slowing down, though ironically enough having just got out of the “joint”, Take finds himself trapped in the liminal space somewhere between gangster and legitimate businessman even as that space seems to be shrinking so much that it may soon disappear entirely from beneath his feet. Shooting mainly with handheld, Kojima deglams the yakuza underworld surveying it with a documentary naturalism that suggests it is in fact perfectly ordinary while playing with the trappings of the classic jitsuroku throwing up onscreen text featuring the names of the main players along with details of their roles and affiliations. Though the moody score and twilight neon might hint at neo-noir there’s not so much fatalism here as a sense of sorry impossibility, yet in contrast to the perhaps expected nihilism there is a degree of hope for Take brokered by his internationalism even if it exists only outside of Japan. 


JOINT screened as part of the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Asian Angel (アジアの天使, Yuya Ishii, 2021)

A collection of lonely souls is brought together by angelic intervention in Yuya Ishii’s grief-stricken appeal for “mutual understanding”, The Asian Angel (アジアの天使, Asia no Tenshi). Brokering the sometimes difficult subject of Japan-Korea relations, Ishii makes a plaintive case for a pan-Asian family while his wounded protagonists each search for meaning and possibility in the wake of heartbreak and disappointment. Yet what they discover is less the urge to move forward than the gentle power of solidarity, bonding in shared sense of displacement and forging a new home from an apparently fated connection. 

Displacement is a feeling which immediately hits struggling author Tsuyoshi (Sosuke Ikematsu) as he struggles to make himself understood to a grumpy Seoul taxi driver after taking his brother up on an offer to relocate to Korea with his young son following the death of his wife some time previously. Toru (Joe Odagiri), however, has not quite been honest about his life in the Korean capital, housed above a church where they always seem to be rehearsing the hymn Angels We Have Heard on High. Wandering into the apartment, Tsuyoshi is physically thrown out by Toru’s grumpy business partner (Park Jung-bum) obviously unaware they were coming as even Toru himself seems to have forgotten inviting them. In any case, the trio eventually find themselves on the street after Toru’s Korean friend with whom he’d started an illicit business smuggling cosmetics betrays them. 

Meanwhile, across town melancholy songstress Sol (Choi Moon) has been supporting her brother and sister with her music career which seems to be on the slide with a faintly humiliating gig in a shopping mall which briefly brings her into contact with Tsuyoshi, apparently captivated by her sadness. Abruptly informed her contract has been terminated, she tries to take the matter up with her manager/lover but gradually realises she’s merely one of several ladies on his books. Feeling lost, she agrees to follow up on a suggestion from her brother Jun-woo (Kim Min-jae) to pay a visit to the grave of their parents who passed away while she was only a child. 

Running into each other on the train after Toru talks Tsuyoshi into a possible seaweed venture in Gangwon, the two trios end up travelling together if originally struggling to find the “mutual understanding” that Tsuyoshi had been looking for. The first message Tsuyoshi sees on his phone on after arriving informs him that Korean-Japanese relations are at an all time low, though perhaps one would think national tension might not descend to the interpersonal level even if he appears to feel slightly awkward as a Japanese man in Korea aside from his inability to speak the language, but after a few too many drinks at a Chinese restaurant Jun-woo starts in on how 69.4% percent of Koreans apparently disapprove of Japan while 61% of Japanese apparently disapprove of Korea which is one reason he wouldn’t be keen on his sisters dating a Japanese guy. Describing himself as a “progressive”, he claims it’s the relatives who wouldn’t accept it but ends the conversation by cheerfully looking forward to when they can finally “part from these Japanese forever”. 

Yet, they do not part despite several opportunities and in fact end up travelling together for a significant distance during which they begin to bond, discovering that they have much in common including the loss of loved ones to cancer and the improbable sighting of angels who appear not like those on the Christmas cards but a weird old Asian man with a tendency to bite. Several times they are told they shouldn’t be together, Toru lamenting that love between Japanese and Koreans is as impossible as that between angels and humans while a police officer later bemusedly remarks that they don’t look like a family but family is in a sense what they become as they each sort out their respective traumas and resentments to reach a healthy equilibrium. Perhaps you couldn’t quite call it love, but almost and it might be someday if only you let it. “Seeing the world through your eyes I might come to like it a little more” Tsuyoshi admits, while Sol too begins to awaken to a new sense of freedom and possibility brokered by an angelic intervention. Marrying the melancholy poetry of The Tokyo Night Sky is Always the Densest Shade of Blue with the gently surreal sense of humour of his earlier work, Ishii’s deeply moving drama makes a quiet plea for a little more “mutual understanding” between peoples but also for the simple power of human connection as evidence of the divine. 


The Asian Angel screened as part of the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Images: (c) 2021 The Asian Angel Film Partners

A Summer Trip (川流不“熄”, Feng Keyu, 2021)

Societal change and rising economic prosperity threaten the foundations of the family in Feng Keyu’s charmingly nostalgic intergenerational adventure A Summer Trip (川流不“熄”, Chuān Liú Bù “Xī”) elegantly lensed by Mark Lee Ping-Bing and boasting a typically whimsical score from Joe Hisaishi. In the run-up to the Beijing Olympics, the nation is in a celebratory mood but in a society where everybody works all the time something may be in danger of getting lost. Young Xiaosong (Hu Changlin) is going off the rails (in a fairly minor way) with both the school and grandpa, often left with childcare duties he feels might not quite be his responsibility, leaning towards blaming the parents who are simply not present enough in his life to be able to offer much in the way of guidance. 

A Korean War veteran, grandpa Zhang Dachuan (Yang Xinming) is beginning to feel as obsolete as the discontinued parts he needs to repair his ancient jeep. He can’t get his head round mobile phones, forever pressing hang up when he means to press answer and causing accidental offence in the process. Resenting the implication that he’s not got much to do all day, he finds himself enlisted by his overworked son to represent the family when his wayward grandson Xiaosong gets into trouble at school. This particular time, it’s apparently because he’s been bothering a female student by taking photos of her with a professional DSLR camera (the teacher later gives Dachuan an envelope to pass to his son and daughter-in-law which turns out to contain a love letter Xiaosong attempted to pass to the object of his affection). Slightly annoyed to be seeing Dachuan again instead of the boy’s parents, the teacher makes herself clear that the cause of Xiaosong’s poor behaviour and declining grades is most likely a lack of parental attention. Chastened, the parents discuss finding a cram school but nothing is really done about his problematic approach to romance, especially as they each need to return to work soon after dinner leaving grandpa sitting alone at the table. 

Perhaps strangely, Xiaosong seems to have forgotten that his grandpa even has a name, hanging up on a caller thinking they’ve got the wrong number only to realise they wanted grandpa and redial upon which Dachuan discovers that his greatest wartime friend has passed away in Beijing and the funeral is in a few days’ time. Though Xiaosong had technically been “grounded” for the summer, the idea was that grandpa was supposed to supervise him while he stayed home and studied. So begins their awkward road trip, passing first through the home of Dachuan’s daughter Ling (Dai Lele) in a town closer to the capital and a lengthy train ride away before pressing on to the city. 

As his opening voiceover explains, Xiaosong never really understood his grandfather thinking of him as a grumpy, stubborn old man stuck in the past. Yet as grandpa later sadly laments reflecting on his friend’s final days, people talk about the past a lot when they’re unhappy in the present. Everyone is always keen to pay respect to Dachuan and his wartime generation, though not all of them have good intentions such as the overfriendly young man they meet on the train who enthusiastically listens to his stories, or the older woman (He Zaifei) who reminds Dachuan of his late wife but leverages his desire to show off by getting him to pay for an expensive lunch. For his part, Dachuan resents his declining capacity and finds himself at odds with the modern world, unable to access technology or understand the changing nature of society. His quest to get to Beijing under his own steam is a way of rebelling against his age, proving he’s still capable and independent though his slightly narcissistic can-do attitude often backfires, his offer to fix a broken-down bus exposing his lack of acumen while his petulant decision to leave finds him stubbornly insisting on walking the remaining 30km to the capital. 

Highlighting the corporate obsession, meanwhile, another stranded bus passenger makes constant phone calls to his less than understanding boss to explain the delay. While Dachuan and his grandson experience set backs on the road, the boy’s father Jianguo (Tu Songyan) chases a reluctant client who won’t sign a contract and returns late to a dark and empty home while his wife (Yang Tongshu) works the nightshift as a surgeon at the hospital. Unbeknownst to Dachuan, Ling and her husband (Gong Zheng) are about to split up apparently because he spent too much time at work and the relationship has fallen apart as a result. Young Xiaosong says he wants to be a photographer to “document all the beautiful things and moments” lamenting that they never took a family photo with his late grandmother. In the absence of his father and son and forced to humiliate himself repeatedly at work, Jianguo comes to regret having deprioritised his family life and recommits himself to repairing their fractured bonds perhaps with a family holiday lamenting that they never got round to it while his mother was alive. The Olympics Opening Ceremony becomes, its own way, a second New Year with the TV broadcast taking the place of the Spring Gala as the family finally come back together again having gained new understandings of themselves and others through their various summer adventures. Society might have changed, those exciting KFC “family buckets” from the city apparently not going quite as far as you’d think, but the family can apparently still be saved with a little mutual understanding and a dose of self-reflection.


A Summer Trip screened as part of the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (Japanese subtitles only)

Ito (いとみち, Satoko Yokohama, 2021)

“Ye can’t hear my silence!” the timid young heroine of Satoko Yokohama’s Ito (いとみち, Itomichi), an adaptation of the Osamu Koshigaya novel, finally fires back, reminding us that silence too is means of communication. The film’s Japanese title, Itomichi, refers to the groove in shamisen player’s nail caused by the friction of the strings, but also perhaps to the path of the heroine of the same name as she makes her way towards self actualisation, figuring out the various ways there are of connecting with people as she begins to step into herself while coming to terms with the past. 

As we first meet Ito (Ren Komai) she’s trapped in a boring history lesson about local famines, reminded by the teacher to raise her voice while reading from the textbook but reluctant to do so firstly because she has an unusually strong local accent and often speaks in dialect and secondly because she is intensely shy. When she’s finished, the teacher even jokes that listening to her read is a little like classical music though it doesn’t seem much like a compliment. Even so, it’s particularly apt as Ito, like her late mother, has a talent for playing the Tsugaru shamisen and has even won numerous competitions yet she’s barely touched her instrument recently, perhaps developing a slight complex about the bumpkinishness of her intensely local way of life, especially as her father Koichi (Etsushi Toyokawa) is a university professor researching the traditional culture of the local area. 

Pointing out that talking is Ito’s weak spot, Koichi reminds her that she can communicate with others through her music even if he later admonishes her to use her words if she has something to say. Her refusal to pick up her shamisen is then a kind of withdrawal if of a particularly teenage kind. Hoping to get over her shyness, she finds herself quite accidentally applying for a part-time job at a maid cafe in the city, an incongruity in itself but one that helps her begin to open up to others. Then again, a maid cafe might not be the best environment selling as it does an outdated conception of sexual politics. Koichi later makes this argument pointing out that a maid cafe is not so different from a hostess bar while another maid, Tomomi (Mayuu Yokota), takes issue with the false chivalry of some of the middle-aged men who frequent the establishment who set up a club to “protect” Ito after she is inappropriately touched by a belligerent customer. To Tomomi the very idea that women need “protection” from men against men is inherently sexist and wrongheaded while the fact that they all rally round to protect the shy and vulnerable Ito also speaks volumes about their ideals of womanhood explaining why it is they’re in a maid cafe where the waitresses call their customers “master” and indulge their every whim in the first place. Even so, Ito’s colleagues are also quick to reassure her that she is in no way at fault, the customer’s behaviour was unacceptable and against the spirit of their establishment.

Yet as the manager points out “moe moe” is also a “means of communication” not perhaps intended to be taken literally. Ito does not exactly discover how to use her words, but through interacting with her colleagues at the cafe begins to come into an acceptance of herself no longer seeing her accent and dialect as uncool or old fashioned giving herself space to breathe as she makes new friends guided by her cafe mentor Sachiko (Mei Kurokawa) and finally getting up the courage to speak to another lonely young woman whom she’d been on awkward nodding terms with seeing as they catch the same train home from school. As Ito’s grandmother (Yoko Nishikawa) reveals, she learned how to play the shamisen with her eyes and ears proving that communication comes in many forms. Ito’s name which she had previously found old-fashioned and embarrassing appropriately enough means threads or here strings of a shamisen which become in their own ways channels to connect with other people which as the slightly dubious owner of the cafe (Daimaou Kosaka) points out is the most important thing of all. 

As Ito rehearses her maid routine with a video of her mentor, grandma outlines her thoughts about shamisen on camera for Koichi’s eager students, handing her knowledge down for the next generation. Literally finding her groove again, carving a niche in her fingernail, Ito rediscovers her love for music while gaining the confidence to stand on stage and be herself encouraged by all her friends and family. A beautifully pitched coming-of-age tale celebrating the local culture of Yokohama’s hometown Aomori, from which leading actress Ren Komai also hails, Ito is a warm and loving tribute not only to Tsugaru shamisen but to friendship and community brokered by a wealth of communication and a willingness to listen even to silence. 


Ito screened as part of the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Images: (C)2021『いとみち』製作委員会

B/B (Kosuke Nakahama, 2020)

“It’s been a while since I asked, who are you?” comes the incongruous question at the beginning of Kosuke Nakahama’s stylish, hugely accomplished graduation movie B/B. What begins as an unconventional, reverse investigation of a bizarre crime committed in a bizarre world, eventually descends into a philosophical interrogation of the modern society and most particularly its continued indifference. “All the oppressors and all the oppressed, those who didn’t notice the pain. We’re all complicit. You think you’re the exception?” asks the witness of her questioners, partly perhaps in justification but also pointing the finger back at a society which prefers to avoid asking uncomfortable questions. 

Set in an alternate 2020 in which the Olympics has been suspended not because of a global pandemic but because of a bribery and corruption scandal, and a terrorist gas attack by a shady cult has recently been foiled, the central mystery revolves around the murder of a convenience store manager dubbed by some the “Icarus” killing. Sana (Karen), a high school girl, has been called in as a person of interest because of her connection with the victim’s son Shiro (Koshin Nakazawa) who has become withdrawn and is unable to offer testimony of his own. The problem is that it’s not exactly “Sana” that they want to talk to as the young woman apparently suffers from Dissociative Identity Disorder, once known as multiple personality. A cynical policeman and sympathetic psychiatrist have been tasked with trying to sort out her unreliable narrative to discover her connection with the crime. 

In a handy piece of symbolism, Sana apparently hosts 12 distinct personalities, a perfect inner jury, while the body of the murdered man was apparently dismembered into 12 parts. As the psychiatrist later advances, the personalities are a symptom of Sana’s mental fracturing in response to trauma and were not born altogether but arrived individually following the increasingly traumatic events of her life presumably beginning with her mother’s death. It’s this sense of parental abandonment that allows her to bond with Shiro who, like her, avoids school by hanging out in local parks in his case because of a further sense of rejection in realising that his teachers are aware of the abuse he suffers at home, Sana immediately noticing the scars protruding from the collar and sleeves of his T-shirt, but have chosen to do nothing to protect him. 

The goal is not to unlock the mystery of Sana, to cure her or to address the various traumas which lie at the root of her psychological fracturing but to investigate the Icarus murder. She is not, however, a credible witness. An infinitely unreliable narrator, her personalities switch at random each giving their own contradictory testimonies in their characteristic fashion. Nakahama mimics Sana’s mania through frantic cutting and abrupt edits, close ups on hands, feet or random objects rather than faces or landscapes. The earliest scenes with Sana and her posse of imaginary friends, only six of whom she is apparently able to manifest at one time, hanging out in the park are shot with a beautiful summer glow coloured with its own kind of nostalgia as she slowly befriends Shiro bonding in shared trauma and a mutual sense of safety. 

While the interrogation scenes trapped in the relative claustrophobia of the doctor’s office may have a sense of the clinical, the judicial manifests most clear in Sana’s mind. The “Council of Sages” in which all her personalities are present takes place in a minimalist space of black and white, shot like a Renaissance painting with echoes of the The Last Supper, as they crowd around and wonder what’s to be done about the Shiro problem, the manic pace slowing somewhat as Sana’s thoughts apparently clear. Yet as she later says to the disbelieving policeman pointing out the absurdity of prosecuting crimes committed as opposed to preventing those yet to occur, “This is hell, we are all trapped in hell”, advancing that she does not believe someone from hell belongs in heaven and would rather reign below than live in pitiable servitude above. Anchored by a phenomenally strong performance by Karen, sophisticated fast paced dialogue including more than a few surprisingly retro pop culture references, and featuring stylish on screen text Nakahama’s striking debut ultimately takes aim at societal indifference and perhaps points the finger at the viewer to pay more attention in a world of constant suffering. 


B/B screened as part of the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Green Jail (綠色牢籠, Huang Yin-Yu, 2021)

The legacy of Japanese imperialism continues to haunt a small Okinawan island once home to a sprawling network of coal mines but now mostly to ghosts of its troubled past at least according to Huang Yin-Yu’s beautifully lensed, elegiac documentary Green Jail (綠色牢籠, Lǜsè Láolóng). So named for its thick forests of mangrove trees, the island’s Iriomote Coal Mine ceased production in 1960 but from the late 19th century to the fall of the Japanese Empire at the end of the war, lured workers from not only from the Japanese mainland but from Korea, China, and Taiwan with false promises of tropical climes and plentiful fruits failing to disclose the harsh and exploitative working conditions they would later prove unable to escape. 

Possibly the last witness to these times, grandma Yoshiko Hashima (her name naturalised from the original Yang) travelled to the island with her adopted father, Yang Tien-fu who worked for the mines and was responsible for recruiting other workers, at the age of 10 leaving briefly after the war but soon returning. The last of the Taiwanese settlers, she recalls little regarding the running of the mines save witnessing frequent beatings by Japanese soldiers but does recall the discrimination she faced as a foreign worker from the local community who by far made up the smallest percentage of those employed at the mines finding herself with few friends as locals often even declined to eat their food or accept their hospitality. 

Yet in a strange way history perhaps repeats itself. Now elderly and alone, her children all having left the island returning only infrequently, she rents out her spare room for extra money to an American traveller, who, like her, came to Japan as a teenager. Though Luis tells us that he hadn’t intended to stay long on the island but likes being able to help Yoshiko who is elderly and alone, she tells us that she regrets her decision to rent to him which she claims she made in the belief he had a wife. She describes him as “‘messy”, claims he has lice, and that his slovenliness has attracted an influx of ants while the pet dog that he keeps on a leash outside disturbs her with its constant whining. Later we see him again having returned to Kansai revealing that he felt that people disliked him and found it difficult to fit in, but that his time in Okinawa has perhaps brought him clarity in the further direction of his life. 

Luis was at least able to leave the island at a time of his own choosing, but as the ghostly voice of Yoshiko’s late father reminds us those who worked in the mines were not so lucky. He tells us that he once slept on a pile of bones and the remains of workers who attempted to flee but ended up starving to death in the jungle were a frequent sight in local caves. Exploited and manipulated, workers were often hopped up on morphine, for which they had to pay, in order to up their productivity but also to make them dependent on their employment to avoid withdrawal aware that they would be unable to obtain a such substances in their home country. They also found themselves borrowing on their wages, especially if they contracted malaria and were unable to work, leaving them essentially indentured and therefore unable to leave without satisfying their debts. Yoshiko tells us that few wanted to come to “Dead Man’s Island” yet Tien-fu declares himself uncertain why some miners remained unhappy with the arrangement eventually needing to organise a specialised police force to enforce discipline complaining that workers who were in debt and therefore earning almost nothing often shirked and only worked when the police were around. 

Travelling around the otherwise idyllic landscape with its verdant green forests and peaceful rivers, Huang finds occasional ghosts of the departed miners hovering on the horizon dressed only in their white fundoshi underwear, slipping into brief scenes of reconstruction set amid the now ruined structures of the industrial mining complex. The last survivor, Yoshiko hangs on alone yet perhaps not quite reflecting on the implications of her father’s role in the development of the mines or particularly of their legacy. Her own life has evidently been hard, adopted as an infant and then married to her “brother” only to see her children desert her left behind alone in the Green Jail a guardian of a dark history few wish to remember. Juxtaposing the island’s traumatic past with the beauty of its verdant scenery Huang’s elegantly composed documentary poses some serious questions about the imperial legacy but always mindful of its wandering ghosts. 


Green Jail screened as part of the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (Japanese subtitles only)

The festival will also be screening Huang Yin-Yu’s accompanying short film Green Grass, Pale Fire: an elliptical, ethereal dramatisation of three men’s attempt to escape the mines only to find themselves trapped by the beautiful yet maddening landscape.

Images: (c) Moolin Films, Ltd./ Moolin Production, Co., Ltd.

Along the Sea (海辺の彼女たち, Akio Fujimoto, 2020)

Japan has famously tough immigration law and surprisingly robust labour protections though enforcing them often proves difficult. The plight of undocumented migrant workers can however be stark as Akio Fujimoto’s Along the Sea (海辺の彼女たち, Umibe no Kanojotachi) makes plain. The three women at the film’s centre, originally from Vietnam, came to Japan legally as part of the government-backed Technical Intern Training Program set up in the early ‘90s supposedly to provide temporary training opportunities for workers from developing economies. Perhaps inevitably, the scheme has often come in for criticism that it amounts to little more than legalised people trafficking allowing employers to maintain exploitative working practices while hiring cheap foreign labour and placing the so-called interns into positions which offer no real technical training. 

This is very much the experience of Phuong (Hoang Phuong), Nhu (Quynh Nhu), and An (Huynh Tuyet Anh), three women in their early 20s who decide to leave their placement because of untenable exploitative conditions requiring them to work 15-hour days with little provision for meals or rest and no payment of overtime. Little different from traffickers, the employers have also held onto the women’s documentation in an attempt to prevent them leaving. The result of this, however, is that they will be living in Japan essentially illegally and without any kind of paperwork at all making it extremely difficult to return to Vietnam. 

Fujimoto opens with the women’s nighttime escape, a perilous journey carrying heavy bags through the night until reaching a train station and then on to buses and ferries to the frozen north of Japan where they are met by a man in a van who takes them to their new place of employment, a fish packing warehouse in Aomori. Though the work is physically strenuous, the payment is much higher than they were previously receiving and paid on time, and the conditions are much more like a regular job with more reasonable hours including weekends off. They are not watched and have a much greater degree of freedom but are obviously nervous of discovery and prevented from participating in certain activities owing to having no ID. This becomes a particular problem for one of the women, Phuong, who has begun feeling ill but is unable to get medical treatment without some kind of documentation to show hospital staff. 

What Phuong hasn’t shared with the other two women is that she suspects she may be pregnant by her hometown boyfriend. During their escape there had existed between them a fierce solidarity and now in a sense they have only each other to rely on, otherwise entirely alone in a foreign land. Phuong’s pregnancy revelation however drives a wedge between the women with Nhu in particular quickly losing sympathy and heavily pressurising her towards an abortion less out of concern and practicality than fear that she may give them all away. The later conclusion can only be that one or both of the women has betrayed Phuong by telling the broker about her pregnancy further piling on the pressure and almost certainly destroying the only support network the women had through an irreparable breach of trust. 

Turned away by the hospital Phuong resolves to buy fake documentation only to be exploited once again by a fixer who suddenly demands more money forcing her to trek through the frozen countryside after losing her train fare home. Like the broker, who is actually nice, polite, and considerate (to a point) in his treatment of the women, the fixer is also Vietnamese a reminder that the women are in a sense being exploited by their fellow countrymen. One of the broker’s chief concerns is obviously that he’s taking 10% of the women’s pay on top of his original commission on finding the work and therefore he loses out if Phuong is unable to work during her pregnancy while childcare is also incompatible with her current lifestyle. Compounding the problem is the fact that each of the women is working to provide not for themselves but for their families meaning that Phuong is in no way free to simply decide to go home and raise her child. Cheerfully discussing what they’d like to do if they had more money, Nhu and An want to pay off their parents’ debts and provide for their siblings’ education. Phuong’s predicament affects more than just the lives of the three women and it seems they are not above forcing her hand in order to protect the better life they’re suffering to provide for their families.

A melancholy character study, Fujimoto’s unflinching drama follows Phuong with documentary precision towards an almost inevitable conclusion as she finds herself hemmed in by the demands of others entirely unable to act on her own desires while denied basic rights and freedoms by virtue of her lack of documentation. Shining a light on the all too hidden lives of migrant workers, Along the Sea paints a bleak picture of the contemporary society in which even solidarity can be broken by the cruel desperation of those who have nothing else on which to depend.


Along the Sea screened as part of the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)