December (赦し, Anshul Chauhan, 2022)

Where is the line between justice and vengeance? The grieving father at the centre of Anshul Chauhan’s December (赦し, Yurushi) is determined that the teenage girl who stabbed his daughter to death should never leave prison, but what he wants is a kind of equivalent exchange in that the person who stole his future along with his child’s should have no right to one herself. A more mainstream effort than either of his previous films Bad Poetry Tokyo and Kontora each of which dealt with similarly thorny themes, Chauhan’s unusually tense courtroom drama is the latest to put the legal system on trial while asking difficult questions about grief, guilt, and what exactly it is we mean when we talk about “justice”.

Seven years previously, 17-year-old Kana (Ryo Matsuura) stabbed her classmate Emi (Kanon Narumi) multiple times in a frenzied attack that resulted in her death. She was sentenced to 20 years in prison and has never attempted to deny her crime. It isn’t she who has asked for her sentence to be reviewed but an independent lawyer, Sato (Toru Kizu), who claims he’s doing it for “justice” though as Kana points out might have half an eye on compensation money she’d be able to claim for wrongful imprisonment if the case were successful. Sato seems to think it will be on the grounds that Kana was unfairly tried as an adult, mitigating circumstances were never brought to the defence’s attention, and the judge’s sentencing was swayed by personal feeling placing it outside of conventional guidelines that should be applied in cases like these.

For Emi’s parents, Katsu (Shogen) and Sumiko (Megumi), the appeal is a slap in the face. The couple have separated and while Sumiko has attempted to move on with her life, marrying a man she met in a support group for bereaved parents, Katsu has become a bitter alcoholic living a purgatorial existence of almost total inertia. Outraged, he is determined to make sure that Kana never leaves prison and is only sorry that she could not receive the death sentence because of her age, while Sumiko would rather not be involved at all, uncertain that she would be able to endure the emotionally draining process of another court case. They settle on presenting a united front, but discover that to do so is also to put themselves on trial while being confronted by a past neither has ever really faced.

The strain on Sumiko is evident as she walks along along a bridge at night and peers over the edge as if about to jump. She later learns that Kana had a mother too who did in fact take her own life after selling everything she owned to pay the compensation money that is used against them in court to imply that they’ve already been served “justice” in the form of monetary recompense from the defendant’s family which ought to declare the matter closed. Unlike Katsu, Sumiko had said her goal wasn’t vengeance but only to make sure that no other mother suffers as she has done, yet another mother already has for she lost a daughter too. Kana meanwhile has no one left to turn to even if she were released, she will have to make a new life for herself alone. Kana is herself victimised by an unforgiving society, the subtext suggesting that she was bullied for being the daughter of a single mother who was unable to fully care for her or provide the kind of material comfort children like Emi receive. The “happy family home” Katsu accuses her of destroying is also a symbol of everything Kana was denied but she did not kill out of jealousy or resentment only, ironically, to escape a kind of imprisonment and free herself of an oppressive bully.

Katsu says he’d kill her himself if he had the chance, but as Sumiko points out then he’d just end up in prison for the rest of his life with only his “righteousness” to comfort him. How could he claim to be any better? As Sato says, emotion has no place in a court of law. That’s why the law the exists and we mediate “justice” through a dispassionate third party to ensure the sentence is fair and not merely “vengeance”. Katsu certainly sees himself as a righteous man. In a repeated motif, Chauhan shows him taking the long way round by walking on the pathways of the grid-like forecourt leading to the courthouse while others hurriedly take the direct route crossing the squares at a diagonal angle. For him the answer is only ever black and white and he is very certain of his truths, but also blinded by his pain and unable to see that his desire for vengeance is more for himself than it is for Emi.

Only by accepting a painful truth can he begin to move past his grief, despite himself moved by Kana’s quiet dignity in which she admits her responsibility and suggests that she will never really be “free” even if she is released. What she offers, in her way, is peace allowing the bereaved parents to bring an end to their ordeal or least enter a new phase in their grief which allows them to move forward in memory rather than remaining trapped within the unresolved past. Perhaps in the end that’s what we mean by “justice”, a just peace with no more recrimination only sorrow and regret with renewed possibility for the future.

December screened as part of this year’s Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Burden of the Past (過去負う者, Atsushi Funahashi, 2023)

Japan has a relatively high recidivism rate with 50% of those released from prison convicted of reoffending within five years. To some this figure simply proves that “criminals“ are, as one woman puts it, “an entirely different race” who have no place in mainstream society and can never be rehabilitated. In many ways it’s a vicious circle, those who’ve spent time in prison are rejected on their release and unable to find steady employment have no other option than to return to criminality in order to support themselves. Atsushi Funahashi’s socially-minded docudrama The Burden of the Past (過去負う者, Kako Ou Mono) explores this contradiction through the stories of a series of former prisoners and the organisation that attempts to help them reintegrate into mainstream society, Change. 

“Change” might in some ways be an ironic name, placing a demand on the people they’re trying to help that implies they are necessarily at fault for their involvement with criminality. The well-meaning staff members are committed to helping the former prisoners reform, but are otherwise powerless to address the systemic social circumstances that led them into crime while prioritising the individual and advocating for conventionality as the only path towards a settled life. That said, each of the people the film spotlights are involved in quite specific kinds of crimes which lean towards the individualistic with only the backstories of Taku, who killed a teenage boy in a hit and run but is also revealed to be dealing with unresolved trauma from childhood physical abuse, and Ai who turned to drug use to overcome her problems with interpersonal communication, loosely explored. 

It is however Ai who suffers most from the hypocritical attitudes of mainstream society. After being taken on as a cleaner she encounters a man smoking who ironically reveals to her that he used to smoke pot but was never caught which is perhaps the only difference between them but on explaining that she spent time in prison for possession of crystal meth he calls her “a real mess” and a “junkie”, telling her that she has no right to hope for a future and should have stayed in jail. His rant results in Ai going temporarily missing with a fear that she may being using drugs again to overcome her sense of hopelessness. Her circumstances are dictated by her existing sense of alienation in her inability to communicate, something which could have been better addressed either by finding ways for her to communicate more effectively or for encouraging others to accommodate her way of communicating rather than insist she conform to theirs. 

Yet it’s clear that the issue is more to do with the stigmatisation of criminality than it is about any fear of potential reoffending as the team from Change discover on talking to a man hoping to recruit a large number of people quickly for pandemic-related cleaning services. The first issue is that he specifically mentions hiring women seeing as it’s a job in cleaning, but also that he says he’ll have to discuss with his boss about hiring people who’ve been involved with sexual or drug-related crimes rather than those which might present a more practical anxiety such as theft, violence, or fraud. 

Close to the end of the film, Change stages a play featuring some of the former prisoners which ends in a confrontational Q&A session in which members of the audience direct their anger towards not only the cast but Change itself for helping them rather than focussing on the welfare of victims of crime. Change also receives a fair amount of harassment, as do a couple who live close by and complain that they feel personally uncomfortable knowing that people with criminal pasts are wandering around where they live while also bringing up that it’s bringing down the price of their property. One of the case workers tries to explain that they’re trying to stop the cycle of recidivism, which would result in lower crime all round and less chance of becoming a victim, but the audience members cannot see her point. They simply feel that these people are not quite human by virtue of their transgression and are in some way weak or defective for being unable to control their impulses or emotions. It may be a comforting thought, to believe these people are so different from oneself is to deny that anyone at anytime could become involved with a crime for a variety of different reasons. After all, laws are socially constructed device for defining conventional morality and what’s considered “criminal” today may not be tomorrow or vice vera. 

But then how do we deal with those whose crimes are so deeply offensive to a conventionally held morality that they cannot really be forgiven? Misumi is a former teacher convicted of an indecent act with a child and fears that he may end up reoffending. He obviously cannot return to his previous employment, and given the nature of his crime can find no other but also must find a way to live. Many at the Q&A session seem to feel that those who’ve been convicted of crimes should be segregated into an alternate prison society so that they do not corrupt the mainstream, but this is in its own way a social death sentence that effectively says they no longer deserve to live even if unlike the extreme case of Misumi their “crimes” were relatively minor and of the sort many others may have committed and faced no penalty for. 

Still, Funahashi doesn’t exactly let Change off the hook suggesting that they are overly idealistic and fundamentally ill-equipped to deal with some of the more serious problems the former prisoners face especially those that would benefit from more comprehensive psychological care. He does though criticise the justice system in which the prison sentence is essentially a fine that’s paid in time and is geared towards punishment rather than rehabilitation leaving the prisoners no different on their release than they were when incarcerated some like Taku still not having fully addressed or accepted their crime and therefore unable to move on with their lives. In any case, the conclusion seems to imply that simple acts of human trust and compassion can go a long way helping to restore a former prisoner’s self-esteem and allowing them to process the realities of their crimes so that they can avoid committing them again even if it is also society which must change. 

The Burden of the Past had its World Premiere as part of this year’s Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Side by Side (サイド バイ サイド 隣にいる人, Chihiro Ito, 2023)

The unresolved past conspires against present happiness in the supernaturally-tinged second feature from Chihiro Ito, Side By Side (サイド バイ サイド 隣にいる人, Side by Side: Tonari ni Iru Hito). Ito began her career as a screenwriter often working with director Isao Yukisada penning the screenplay for his 2004 junai mega hit Crying Out Love in the Center of the World before making directorial debut just last year with In Her Room, produced by Yukisada and selected for the Tokyo International Film Festival. Like many of the films Ito scripted, Side by Side bears an unusual sensitivity and gentleness of spirit in the way it sees the world which may in its way be filled with pain and longing but also warmth and light even if some may ultimately feel that they can never become a part of it. 

Miyama (Kentaro Sakaguchi) is indeed a haunted man in more ways that one, though the most obvious is that he’s continually followed around by a blond man dressed in black (Kodai Asaka) who says nothing but just stares blankly much like Miyama himself. Working as a physiotherapist, Miyama travels the country and often discovers that the physical pain his patients experience is linked to an emotional trauma as manifested in the various ghosts he sees around them which don’t seem to speak to him. Having left the city of Tokyo where he was raised, he wandered around before eventually finding a home with the welcoming nurse Shiori (Mikako Ichikawa) and her young daughter Mimi (Ameri Isomura) in a tranquil rural village in picturesque Nagano. Yet there are ways in which Miyama doesn’t seem to fit inside the familial environment, almost like a ghost himself somehow there and also not. 

The ghosts are in their way a visual representation of the unresolved past that endangers the new family Miyama has begun to build with Shiori and Mimi but fears he can never really be a part of. Shiori recalls seeing a light fitting in a film that she wants to hang over their dinner table to bathe it in the warm light of family, but is unable to find it even with Miyama’s help. It’s she that makes the rather unusual decision to invite a another ghost of Miyama’s past into their home in the gothic vision that is Riko (Asuka Saito), a woman Miyama “abandoned” who has since experienced some kind of breakdown and is then “abandoned” once again by another man who may or may not be the father of the child she is carrying. The unconditional love and support of Shiori and her daughter begin to bring Riko back to life, no longer dressing all in black and eating only white-coloured foods as colour and warmth are slowly returned to her. 

Even so, there are times it becomes difficult to tell the living from the “dead” when even Miyama seems like a ghost dressed all in white haunting his own life with his eerie stillness and not quite vacant eyes but those which express, as someone later puts it, a deep regret in his past. Like everyone else he struggles to emerge from past trauma in parental abandonment and physical abuse while acknowledging that his father suffered as a child and passed that suffering on to him because he did not know how to be a father. Miyama doesn’t know how to be a father either which is perhaps why he fears the depths of his new relationships and his role as a paternal figure while filled with shame and regret for those he failed in the past. 

But then there are others so undeniably alive such as Shiori and her daughter, often dressed in a vibrant yellow and basking in the warm sunshine which streams through the large windows of Shiori’s beautifully designed home. The family take solace in the beauty and comfort of the natural world, protected by its rhythms and the serenity it often offers them. Miyama may feel that he can never recover from his past and has no right to be drawn to this one solitary source of light, as Shiori describes it, like the bugs he is forever trying to keep out of the house but in the end gives them something else in the unconventional family that arises founded on human compassion and unconditional love that asks few questions and simply accepts those who are willing to accept it.

Side by Side had its World Premiere as part of this year’s Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Images: (C) 2023 “Side by Side” Film Partners

When Morning Comes, I Feel Empty (朝がくるとむなしくなる, Yuho Ishibashi, 2022)

A young woman finds herself dealing with feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness after giving up on the corporate life in Yuho Ishibashi’s zeitgeisty indie drama When Morning Comes, I Feel Empty (朝がくるとむなしくなる, Asa ga Kuru to Munashiku Naru). Set against the backdrop of a society in which death from overwork is not uncommon and there have been countless reports of young people taking their own lives because of workplace exploitation, the film seems to ask if there isn’t another choice and if one can really be forgiven for rejecting the conventional path in an intensely conformist society. 

Nozomi (Erika Karata) quit her job at an ad agency six months previously and is currently working part-time in a convenience store not far from where she lives. So ashamed is she of her failure to live up to the demands of corporate life that she can’t bring herself to tell her parents that she no longer works in an office. Her co-workers at the store seem to know, but when they ask questions she tells them that she quit because of too much overtime which is ironic as her boss is forever asking her to work an additional late shift because of poor staffing levels and she always meekly agrees though never seems all too happy about it despite the extra money. 

Then again, she doesn’t seem too happy about anything. In a repeated motif, her mother sends her fresh vegetables from back home but she never has the energy to cook for herself and is usually seen eating bento from the store or slurping cup ramen. The fact her life is out of kilter is brought home to her when one side of the curtain rail in her room suddenly collapses in a bid for freedom from its imprisonment on the wall. Barely speaking and aloof from her colleagues, she seems to carry a deep-seated sense of shame that she “failed” to settle in to company life, later telling an old friend she’s unexpectedly reconnected with that she couldn’t cope with the intense overtime that often meant she’d miss the last train and have to overnight in a manga cafe or fork out for a taxi. Her boss always yelled at her, but she felt like everyone else seemed to be managing so the fault must be with her. She regards her decision to leave as a defeat and not a victory even as she recounts feelings of despair and hopelessness crossing the bridge every day to work with only a sense of emptiness in the hollowness of the salaryman dream. 

But then the film takes it title from a reflection something her younger colleague said about earnestly feeling that it was wonderful just to get up every day and come to work. Ayano doesn’t mean it as some kind of cultish devotion to the combini life or a toxic commitment to an unreasonable worth ethic, but more that she manages to find joy in the seemingly mundane even as she jokes about her nerdy college boyfriend who wears glasses, and sheepishly reveals that she’s been saving money with the intention of studying abroad. Nozomi’s only in her mid-20s, but perhaps it is a little different for these contemporary college kids who have bigger dreams and don’t feel the need to throw themselves into the corporate straightjacket just so they can feel like legitimate “members of society”. Their relative youth and sense of possibility may fuel Nozomi’s sense of failure, that she’s back doing a college kid’s part-time job at 24 and surrounded by students as if accidentally arrested in adolescence, but perhaps also shows her that there are other options and making a different choice doesn’t necessarily equate to failure. 

More than anything, it’s an accidentally encounter with a former middle school classmate (Haruka Imo) that finally allows her to make peace with herself and feel like a human being again, someone worthy of love and respect and with new hope for the future. Evoking a sense of disillusionment with the salaryman dream and the emptiness of corporate success that is devoid of human connection, Ishibashi shoots with a laidback ease that on one level reflects the heroine’s malaise but soon gives way to a comforting breeziness as Nozomi discovers a new home for herself in the wholesome pleasures of friendship and mutual acceptance as a bulwark against the vagaries of a capitalistic society. 

When Morning Comes, I Feel Empty screened as part of this year’s Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Images: (C)Ippo

Jiseok (지석, Kim Young-jo, 2022)

When Kim Jiseok, co-founder and head programmer of the Busan International Film Festival, passed away suddenly at Cannes in 2017 of a heart attack at the young age of 57, it sent shockwaves through the cinema industry. Kim had been a key figure in the promotion of Asian cinema which he founded the festival to showcase, but had also become mired in controversy following the decision to go ahead with a screening of a documentary about the Sewol Ferry disaster that the municipal authorities had tried to pressure the festival to cancel because it reflected badly on the government. 

Kim Young-jo’s documentary Jiseok (지석) makes no secret of suggesting that the stress of dealing with the government’s attempts to overrule the festival’s autonomy was a direct cause of his death. In a poignant clip from a 2012 interview included close the documentary’s conclusion, Jiseok is asked why BIFF has managed to survive when so many other festivals have not and answers that there has always been such a tight bond between its team members which has not so far been strained by conflict or controversy and he doubts that it ever will be. 

But this is in fact thought what happened as the organisers split into factions with differing views as to how the festival should proceed after it was targeted by the government, some feeling they should cancel all together and others wanting to go ahead. Jiseok felt himself pressed into a corner caught between opposing forces and torn between loyalty to his old friends and the desire to preserve the film festival. Industry friends also privately recall that he was personally very affected by the Sewol Ferry Disaster in which a large number of school children were killed when the ferry they were travelling on as part of a school trip capsized due to mismanagement and lax safety procedures. 

Still, Jiseok was regarded by some as a traitor for continuing to work with the festival and taking over the duties of Lee Yong-kwan who had made the decision to go ahead with the screening but was forced to resign under government pressure and later accused of embezzlement after a government audit carried out in retaliation. In subsequent years, many Korean industry figures decided to boycott the festival entirely while a question mark hung over its autonomy and artistic freedom. Most of the interviewees are able to acknowledge that Jiseok found himself in a difficult position and do not necessarily hold his decision to continue working at BIFF against him but do suggest that it was the fragmentation of these relationships, some of which went back over 30 years, that caused him additional strain and damaged his health. 

What’s most clear is that Jiseok was very well loved and is much missed not only by his wife who also appears in the documentary but by the international industry at large. Some of the biggest names in East Asian cinema such as Hirokazu Koreeda, whom Jiseok had asked to become the dean of the Asian Film Academy, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul appear on camera offering their memories of Jiseok while it’s clear that he also enjoyed warm and close relationships with filmmakers at both ends of their career. Malaysian director and actress Tan Chui Mui (Barbarian Invasion) makes a particularly poignant statement recalling the bubbling frog bath toy Jiseok had gifted her infant son who will now only know his “Korean Uncle” only from photographs and her stories of him. Other South Eastern filmmakers also pay tribute to his warm support of underrepresented national cinemas and encouragement of new cinematic voices.

Kim’s documentary may in some ways find itself caught between competing visions on the one hand keen to examine the fallout from the tightening censorship regime of the Park Geun-hye era which eventually led to the blacklisting of artists who were critical of the regime including internationally renowned names such as Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho, while on the other offering a simple memorial of the man himself in an act of catharsis for those who knew him with the consequence that little else of him is revealed aside from his warmth, cheerfulness, and affability along with his passionate love of film. In any case, many of the interviewees appear close to tears as they attempt to bid Jiseok goodbye, testament to good he left behind not just in terms of cinema but as a human being.

Jiseok screened as part of this year’s Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

People Who Talk to Plushies Are Kind (ぬいぐるみとしゃべる人はやさしい, Yurina Kaneko, 2023)

How is it possible to go on living in a society which is often unkind and at times hostile? A collection of sensitive university students find themselves struggling to accept the world around them in Yurina Kaneko’s charmingly empathetic adaptation of the novel by Ao Omae, People who Talk to Plushies are Kind (ぬいぐるみとしゃべる人はやさしい), but discover a kind of solidarity in softness after joining a club where they don headphones and unburden themselves to cuddly toys. 

As they point out, it’s good to talk. But talking to someone else about your worries can end up making them worried too and that’s the last thing any of the members of the Plushie Club want which is why they’ve decided to talk to plushies instead. Yet what’s worrying them isn’t just their worries, but a sense of their powerlessness and complicity in having behaved as if they believed the problems of others were nothing to do with them until they were shown otherwise. The hero, Nanamori (Kanata Hosoda) regrets that he “laughed things away with everyone else” rather than speaking up when he saw something that seemed wrong to him and should change while acknowledging that simply by existing as a man he may make someone feel afraid or uncomfortable without meaning to. 

Nanamori is careful not to hurt others by his own actions, trying to turn down a confession of love from a classmate in high school as kindly as he can but perhaps failing in his awkwardness even as he straightforwardly tells her that he doesn’t understand the concept of romantic desire. He simply doesn’t know what it means to “like” someone, and feels that there must be something wrong with him that he can’t grasp this simple facet of human behaviour. On a trip home uniting with some boys from school, he is immediately put off by their stereotypically masculine banter in which they ask him about girls and crushes and mock him for being a virgin until he finally leaves and tells them not to laugh at him just because he is different. 

Everyone at the Plushie Club is “different” in their own way, but has come to find a place to belong where they are simply allowed to be without needing to offer anything else. As another of the members, Nishimura (Mimori Wakasugi), puts it there’s something between kindness and indifference that is simply gentle, a quiet yet powerful quality of acceptance. When she casually revealed one day that she had a girlfriend, most of her friends were supportive but perhaps superficially. Her revelation had made them uncomfortable and regardless of how they felt about it, their perception of her had changed and she was no longer the person she had been to them before. They began to treat her differently, but at the Plushie Club there was no real difference and everyone carried on reacting to her the same way they always had. 

The Plushie Club is a place where it’s permitted to be soft in a hard world, where the members can allow themselves to feel drained by the process of living and find relief from their sense of powerlessness in acknowledging that they have made a choice to continue being kind rather than become what the world wants them to be. In an effort to understand romantic desire, Nanamori begins dating a fellow member, Shiraki (Yuzumi Shintani), but discovers that she has chosen the opposite path laughing at women who complain about societal misogyny and insisting that it’s pointless to resist because nothing will ever change. She joined the Plushie Club because she was sick of being sexually harassed at other uni gatherings but later decides to deliberately join another club filled with sexist guys because the real world isn’t so nice and the only way to survive it is to become hard yourself. 

Shiraki claims that she finds Nanamori’s “righteousness” “exhausting” and wishes she could free him and a similarly minded classmate, Mugito (Ren Komai), from their “tormenting kindness” which has in its way hurt her though unavoidably so even as she continues to be kind despite herself if rebelling by refusing to talk to plushies. Kaneko sometimes shifts to a blurry plushie vision with shimmering pastel-coloured edges and a kind of glitter snow effect that makes it seem as if the stuffed toys really are watching over their human friends as they silently, or not, agree to shoulder some of the burden of living. “They’re the ones talking to us,” Nanamori points out though in a way perhaps it’s more that the plushies reflect a part of themselves allowing them to exteriorise their internal dialogue and reach an accommodation with their fear and loneliness amid a world which consistently proves immovable and disappointing.

People Who Talk to Plushies Are Kind had its World Premiere as part of this year’s Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Images: (C) 映画「ぬいぐるみとしゃべる人はやさしい」

Like & Share (Gina S. Noer, 2022)

Two young women seeking escape from a repressive social culture find themselves betrayed by the hypocrisies and lawlessness of the online society in an infinitely empathetic drama from Two Blue Stripes’ Gina S. Noer, Like & Share. Like many young people, they see internet stardom as a path towards freedom and independence, but are too naive to understand its underlying darkness even when presented with evidence of its misuse in the alarming popularity of an illicit sex tape and its violent sequel. 

Lisa (Aurora Ribero) in particular is strangely fascinated by the video despite realising that in the sequel that followed the woman is crying and appears to have suffered sexualised violence at the hands of the man whose face is never seen. “No face, no case” the girls are fond of saying, naively thinking that they can safeguard themselves from potential harm simply by shooting from the neck down. When nude photos are leaked of another girl at school, she’s able to claim that it’s not her and encourage people to block the sender but still it seems like no one really believes her. Lisa and Sarah (Arawinda Kirana) seem to feel a sense of invincibility, that they’re in control of their online personas and the channel they’ve set up featuring beautifully produced ASMR videos accompanied by a deliberately “sexy” voice over. Though Lisa is unsure, Sarah brushes off some of the more unpleasant comments they get as simply par for the course while reminding her that they’ll get more likes and shares appealing to the sort of people that make them. 

But the girls are largely ill-equipped to understand the world they’re entering, not least because of the repressive atmosphere in which they’ve been raised. Lisa soon becomes fixated on the sex tape, addicted to pornography and masturbation which temporarily replaces ASMR as her preferred method of stress relief. The problem is compounded by the fact that her mother has married an older, quite conservative religious man and converted to Islam. She is very keen that Lisa not upset her new stepfather, who has agreed to pay for her education, mainly because it’s her own “second chance” to atone for the failure of her first marriage and prove herself a good wife and mother. “What sort of good woman are you that has no empathy for other women?” Lisa later asks her but gets little reply. Her mother advises her to read the Quran if she wants to calm herself down, though Lisa counters that she can’t read Arabic anyway.

As Lisa explains, she was merely curious and it’s not as if she could have asked her mother for knowledge or advice. Her addiction partly stems from the illicit nature of the activity, had she had a healthier outlet and better access to sex education she would probably not have reacted to the video in such an extreme way. Sarah later experiences something similar after meeting a boy, Devan (Jerome Kurnia), at a local recreation ground and agreeing to date him without necessarily seeing any red flags in the fact he’s 27 with a full-time job and wants to date a 17-year-old high school girl. Every time she expresses reluctance to take their relationship to the next level he calls her “childish”, later assaulting her and filming it to use as blackmail and potential online clout. “It’s always the girl’s life that’s ruined, never the man’s” he later sneers, certain that he’ll get away with it because it’s his word against hers and as her lawyer cautions her after Devan leaks the video going to the police is risky because there’s a chance she could end up being charged with obscenity under the country’s laws surrounding pornography. 

Misogyny is already deeply ingrained in the system. Ironically enough, the girls’ teacher tells them the school can’t afford to fund group activities so they need to go swimming on their own and film it for him so he can mark them. The videos are shown to the entire class with even the teacher appearing to salivate over the footage of teenage girls in wet swimsuits while their male classmates make inappropriate comments that go largely unchallenged. Sarah is unwilling to accept that what happened to her was rape, firstly brushing it off as a potential fetish for rough sex or suggesting that Devan did not hear her say no despite having previously told her about a too spicy dish at a restaurant that if she doesn’t like or want something she should say so. Lisa meanwhile is forced to accept her partial complicity after crossing paths with the woman from the sex tape and becoming somewhat fixated on her before reflecting on the harm that she had done in having watched it in the first place. It’s she that later helps Lisa come to an understanding of the best way to support her friend through her ordeal which may be simply to be there and to listen. 

Despite the judging eyes of the world around them, the two women have their friendship and the refreshingly progressive support of Sarah’s older brother who stands by his sister rather than blaming her. Even so, it’s other women who often fail her from the conservative judgement of Lisa’s mother to a lawyer at a court hearing who says that Sarah made her choice when she decided to enter the hotel room with Devan and has no right to call her “regret” “rape”. Yet Lisa and Sarah are finally able to repair their friendship and stand up in solidarity against a patriarchal social culture, refusing to let Devan off the hook while reassuming control of their channel by reading out some of the inappropriate messages they’ve been sent by men online. “Thank you for being brave” a message on the website of a woman’s legal organisation reads, once more reinforcing the power of female solidarity against systematised misogyny. 

Like & Share screens March 14/18 as part of this year’s Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Cafune (カフネ, Haruki Kinemura, 2023)

A pair of teenagers with differing priorities struggle to deal with the discovery of an unplanned pregnancy in Haruki Kinemura’s evenhanded indie drama Cafune (カフネ). Refreshingly progressive, the film is careful never to characterise the pregnancy as a tragedy or in anyway shameful but centres more on the decisions it forces the teens to make about themselves and their futures rather than fixating on the transience or longevity of teenage love. 

Love is the answer Mio gives when her mother quizzes her over the pregnancy test she found shoved into a black plastic bag hidden at the back of a drawer. There’s no getting away from the fact her mother thinks she’s been foolish and is disappointed to have found out this way, but at the same time she’s not exactly scandalised and is clear that it’s Mio who has a decision to make both for herself and for her unborn child without trying to influence her either way. As for the baby’s father, Nagisa, he does not react anywhere near as well, suddenly trashing his room and flailing around in frustration even though his own mother has been almost as sympathetic as Mio’s despite a similar level of disappointment with him. Though part of that may be that she knows he’s also been carrying on with Mio’s friend Natsumi which would explain the dirty look she gives him on meeting Mio on the way out as she leaves in a hurry after failing her first attempt to tell him about the baby. 

Mio certainly has a point when she tells Nagisa that he’s immature and self-centred. He’s been bunking off school for weeks while supposedly studying at home for an important exam and seems to have a mild superiority complex. Just as she was going to tell him about the baby he announces that they should take a break so he can study harder, leaving her to handle all of this on her own while also beginning to suspect that he’s been cheating on her which makes her situation all the more difficult. “Am I the only one who’s been irresponsible?” she asks him when he reacts badly to the news about the baby, blaming Mio for this sudden crisis right before his exam as if he had no part in it at all. Mio already seems to suspect that whatever her decision she can’t rely on Nagisa to take responsibility even while making it clear that it’s not something she feels she can decide unilaterally. 

Then again as she later says, maybe happiness isn’t something you can just decide either. The conclusion that she comes to is that she should make herself happy rather than waiting around for someone else to do it for her and even if Nagisa promises to make her happy in the future it’s partly for selfish reasons, as much for himself as for her in proving a point of masculine pride. In any case, the solution which is found is in itself refreshingly mature requiring no particular sacrifice for either party as each is allowed to pursue their individual hopes for the future without resentment or recrimination.

Mio is also able to repair her relationship with possibly treacherous best friend Natsumi who in the end was only jealous fearing that she would lose Mio as a friend now that she has a lover while failing to realise that there is someone else to whom she’s currently “number one”. Largely free of the sense of judgment that often colours teen pregnancy drama, Kinemura’s gentle coming-of-age tale instead discovers an unexpected well of support across the generations as the teens take centre stage in shaping their decisions not just for the present moment but for their mutual futures in figuring out who they are, what they want out of life, and what is best both for themselves and for the baby. Making the most of its tranquil fishing village setting, the film gradually makes its way towards a kind of serenity as the friends play together on the beach beset as it is by roaring waves but also a gentle kind of happiness.

Cafune had its World Premiere as part of this year’s Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Osaka Asian Film Festival 2023 Announces Complete Lineup

The Osaka Asian Film Festival returns for its 18th edition from 10th to 19th March bringing with it some of the best in recent East Asian Cinema. This year’s edition will open with the world premiere of a dark comedy from the director of The Sparring Partner, Over My Dead Body, and close with another world premiere in the Kentaro Sakaguchi-starring drama Side By Side.

Hong Kong

  • Hong Kong Family – a fracturing family struggles to repair itself after a traumatic holiday gathering in Eric Tsang Hing-Weng’s autobiographically inspired familial melodrama. Review.
  • Life Must Go On – sporting comedy in which a social worker teams up with a washed up coach to lead unruly teens to dodgeball glory.
  • Lost Love – a couple who have recently lost a child decide to foster, but the decision places additional strain on their relationship.
  • Over My Dead Body – chaos reigns when an ordinary family discover a corpse on their property and set about trying to pass the buck before it impacts the value of their home.
  • The Narrow Road – an earnest middle-aged man and a cynical young woman become unlikely friends in pandemic Hong Kong in Lam Sum’s melancholy drama. Review.
  • The Sunny Side of the Street – Anthony Wong stars as a retired taxi driver who takes in the son of a refugee after a traffic accident.


  • Like & Share – two teenage girls fall foul of the false promises of the online society after starting an ASMR video channel.


  • The Burden of the Past – docudrama from Atsushi Funahashi following a series of people trying to reintegrate into society after spending time in prison.
  • Cafune – gentle seaside drama in which a pair of teens attempt to deal with an unplanned pregnancy.
  • December – powerful drama from Anshul Chauhan in which bereaved parents attempt to prevent their daughter’s killer from getting her sentence reduced.
  • Is This Heaven? – mid-length seaside drama from Shinji Imaoka.
  • NEW RELIGION – supernatural horror in which a woman struggles to deal with her grief following the death of her daughter.
  • People Who Talk to Plushies Are Kind – adaptation of the novel by Ao Omae in which dejected students join the Plushy Club to bear their souls to stuffed toys.
  • Saga Saga – mystery drama from Jeux de Plage’s Aimi Natsuto in which a young woman returns home to Saga after leaving to become an actress.
  • Side by Side – a young man with the power to sense spirits is forced to reflect on the past after reading the thoughts of a friend from high school who went to Tokyo to become a musician.
  • When Morning Comes, I Feel Empty – a young woman who quit an exploitative job is much happier working at a convenience store but also burdened by a deep sense of guilt and inadequacy.
  • Where Love Goes – snowbound drama in which scattered teenagers struggle to deal with the death of a friend.


  • Jiseok – documentary focussing on Kim Jiseok, former director of the Busan International Film Festival, who passed away unexpectedly while attending the Cannes film festival in 207.
  • Remember – an elderly man suffering with Alzheimer’s and a brain tumour sets out on a quest for vengeance against the men who destroyed his family during the colonial era.


  • Leonor Will Never Die – a grief-stricken screenwriter resolves to write her way out of self-imposed inertia while trapped in a world of her own creation in Martika Ramirez Escobar’s meta dramedy. Review.
  • YIELD Final Version – documentary exploring the lives of working class children.


  • Bad Education – a night of post-graduation celebration goes awry when teenage boys unwisely assault a gangster in the directorial debut from actor Kai Ko.
  • Day Off – a veteran hairdresser embarks on a road trip when the family of an old client who had moved far away and has since become bedridden ask her to come and cut his hair.


  • OMG! Oh My Girl – a pair of youngsters fall for each other in high school but somehow never get together.
  • You & Me & Me – millennial drama in which the relationship between a pair of twins is disrupted when they fall for the same boy.


  • Sister Sister 2 – drama set in the 1930s in which an aristocrat falls victim to a plot by a flower girl.

The Osaka Asian Film Festival runs from 10th to 19th March at venues across the city. Full details for all the films as well as ticketing links are available via the official website. You can also keep up with all the latest details by following the festival on Facebook, TwitterInstagram, and YouTube.

YU-GEKI~side story of “Love’s Twisting Path”~ (遊撃 -「多十郎殉愛記」外伝-,Tatsuya Matsubara, 2021)

At the age of 83 and not having made a narrative film in over 20 years, Sadao Nakajima decided to step back into the director’s chair in 2019 with a classic chambara in Love’s Twisting Path, an old-fashioned samurai drama taking place in the turbulent years of the Bakumatsu at the end of the Edo era. More than just a behind the scenes documentary, Tatsuya Matsubara’s YU-GEKI~side story of “Love’s Twisting Path”~ (遊撃 -「多十郎殉愛記」外伝-, Yu-Geki -Tajuro Junai-ki Gaiden-) explores the film’s production but also reflects on the director’s long career and the changing trends of the Japanese film industry. 

Changing times do seem to be Nakajima’s primary motivation, wanting to pay tribute to Toei’s Kyoto studios once home to its mainline of period pieces produced for the big and small screens. These days, however, such productions are few and far between. Of course, Japan continues to produce historical dramas in large numbers but they tend to be just that with swordplay a secondary concern. Nakajima had wanted to resurrect this dying sector of the industry in part because he felt sorry for the specialist performers who can no longer support themselves with samurai movies alone.

Paradoxically this becomes a secondary problem for the production team as the pool of actors with training in stage combat becomes ever smaller, Nakajima forced to hire early career trainees while star Kengo Kora puts in overtime vigorously training to master the sword skills needed to seem convincing as a jidaigeki lead. Along with the decline of classic chambara, itself perhaps an expression of studio system as it existed before the 1970s, goes all the skills that accompany it from swordsmen to costumiers and makeup artists who know how to work on period features giving rise to the worry that the expert techniques honed over lifetimes will eventually be lost. 

Aside from the problems securing their creative team, Nakajima also runs into funding difficulties with backers unwilling to invest given the director’s age and poor health worrying that he may not be able to complete the project. Ironically this places further pressure on the production as Nakajima is forced to shorten the script and shooting time packing in as much as humanly possible per day. A young production assistant is beginning to feel bad about having to explain to him that so many things just aren’t possible while he too grows frustrated wandering around the mountains looking for a particular temple he remembers from his time at the studio but unable to remember exactly where it was or how to find it. Meanwhile he’s ably assisted by his former pupils including Kazuyoshi Kumakiri (Mukoku, Antenna, Sketches of Kaitan City) who acts as his AD along with Nobuhiro Yamashita (Linda Linda Linda, Over the Fence, Hard Core) who also visits the set

It’s the presence of these pupils that Nakajima eventually hints makes his life worth living others suggesting that so many people wanting to learn from him gives him a sense of purpose and validation. Love’s Twisting Path was intended to be his final film, but asked if he’d have an idea for any more he likens himself to an elderly Musashi Miyamoto, the legendary swordsman, who became withered with age but faced a constant stream of young challengers each excited to fight him while he too saw it as a way to prove to the world that he still existed. 

Despite the tremendous effort put into its production, Love’s Twisting Path did not do as well as Nakajima had hoped at the box office leading him to blame himself wondering if he was too focussed on his own interests and understandably deflated having invested so much into the project hoping to kickstart a revival of classic jidaigeki that would revitalise the old Toei lot. Then again this feeling of not quite having lived up to his aspirations might contribute to a sense of wanting to try again with another film if only it had not been for the advent of the global pandemic. Journeying through his career history, Matsubara finds Nakajima a contrary figure, rebellious and frustrated even then in the barriers erected between himself and his art ,the films he wanted to make shot down by studio execs while he tries his best to inject a characteristic sense of reality into a series of programme pictures, contemporary yakuza films, action dramas, and finally chambara which he claims never to have liked in the first place. In the end it’s all about love, Nakajima’s son insists seeing something of his father’s romanticism in his films but also his deep love of cinema and of the riches to be found in the artistic legacy of the Kyoto studios. 

YU-GEKI~side story of “Love’s Twisting Path”~ screened as part of Osaka Asian Film Festival 2022.

Original trailer (no subtitles)