Joyful Mystery (Misteryo sa Tuwa, Abbo Q. Dela Cruz, 1984)

If you “found” a fancy bag full of cash and the guy who was carrying it obviously won’t be needing it anymore, what would you do, hand it in, or take it and keep quiet? Many would have little problem with option two, though as someone later points out sometimes big money can be a big problem. Rarely seen on its release during the martial law era, Abbo Q. Dela Cruz’s Joyful Mystery (Misteryo sa Tuwa) is both a tale of human greed and selfishness and of the thinly veiled feudalistic corruptions of an era. 

Clearly dated to the 19th August, 1950, the film opens with a raucous celebration for the baptism of the village chief’s youngest son Tiko (Kenneith Hutalla) which is all too soon disrupted by the harbingers of doom in the form of an aircraft trailing black smoke that duly crashes right into the forest in which we saw the villagers living and working throughout the social realist title sequence. The villagers rush to the scene, but once there they quickly start looting the wreckage largely ignoring the handful of bodies thrown out of the bisected plane despite the theoretical possibility that at least some of them may still be alive. The trouble starts when three men pick up a fancy briefcase belonging to “an American” and are spotted by a fourth man, a soldier, Castro (Lito Anzures), who claims to have found the briefcase first and laid claim to it. Soon after, the local mayor (Mario Taguiwalo) arrives with two Chinese businessmen who’ve come looking for their colleague who, they claim, was carrying a large amount of money intended to fund their business project. 

Despite the happy scene of the opening party at which it is assured there is food enough for everyone, it’s clear that the lure of the loot has exerted a corrupting force over the previously close village as each family attempts to hide whatever it was they took from the crash site for themselves so they won’t have to share. The three men, village chief Ponsoy (Tony Santos Sr.), problematic libertine Mesiong (Johnny Delgado), and earnest young man Jamin (Ronnie Lazaro), agree to share out the contents of the bag equally, all harbouring different dreams from a comfortable life in the city to owning a horse and the ability to get married, but are nervous about Castro, making a pact they won’t give up the money no matter what happens. 

That turns out to cause more of a problem once the authorities start looking for the bag. Captain Salgado (Robert Antonio), perhaps for obvious reasons the only incorruptible figure to be found, suspects that someone may have found the money already and decided to keep it, while the mayor admits he might have done the same, eventually entering into a pact with Castro to steal the bag from the villagers and split the contents between them. Living comfortably in the city, the mayor cares little for his co-conspirators, planning to blame the Huk rebels living in the forest for any negative fallout and otherwise making a patsy out of Castro to ensure he won’t have to part with too much of the money. 

At a loss for what to do, the villagers’ wives automatically suspect the mayor is involved, innately distrustful of authority figures, even doubting the captain whom they otherwise believe to be good and just. We’re repeatedly told that villagers are greedy mercenaries, they don’t agree to help the army with the bodies from the crash until offered money (nor do they seem worried about the fires) despite the fact that they will obviously encourage the encroachment of wild animals such as rats which are later seen to be enough of a problem that the mayor again offers a bounty on their heads in an effort to get the villagers involved in culling them. Yet we can also see that they’re trapped by a series of changing though outdated social codes in which the feudal relationships between peasants and landowners have crumbled but the farmers have been hung out to dry at the mercy of corrupt political figures such as the venal mayor and distrustful of the revolutionary Huk whose opposition to the feudal legacy they fail to understand. You can’t blame them for taking the money because they’re in desperate need and there are no other mechanisms by which they might improve their circumstances. It’s desperation rather than greed which begins to turn them against each other as they jealously guard the opportunity hidden in the money which points towards a better life for themselves and their families. 

Perhaps ironically, the film begins with a baptism and ends with a wedding which is to say that it travels anti-clockwise to come full circle as the villagers once again dance and celebrate, perhaps uncomfortably vindicated in their moral failing even as they “win” in overcoming the systemic corruption which otherwise oppresses them. Their victory however is only to a point, the social realism of the title sequence is repeated in the credits, the farmers returning to the forests just as they always have and perhaps always will no matter what illusionary dreams they might have had of escape fuelled only by the promise of misbegotten riches. 

Joyful Mystery streamed in its recent 4K restoration as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.

Restoration trailer (English subtitles)

MEKONG 2030 (Kulikar Sotho, Anysay Keola, Sai Naw Kham, Anocha Suwichakornpong, Pham Ngoc Lân, 2020)

Literally on the shores of an ecological crisis, the communities along the Mekong River know better than most the dangers of climate change and increasing industrialisation. Commissioned by the Luang Prabang Film Festival, MEKONG 2030 takes its cues from the recent “ten years” phenomenon, bringing together five directors from different nations along the Mekong to imagine what the situation might be in a decade’s time. 

Environmental concerns and changing times are clearly at the forefront of Cambodian director Kulikar Sotho’s Soul River in which Klark, an indigenous huntsman, discovers an ancient statue in the forest and determines to sell it to buy a better future for himself and his wife having lost everything in a flood caused by deforestation and the affects of increasing industrialisation. Unfortunately he is challenged by Sok, a former fisherman forced onto the land due to the lack of fish in the river, who claims to be the land’s owner and insists the statue is his. An amusing stand off, Klark’s machete vs Sok’s walkie-talkie, signals their respective positions as avatars of new and old. Nevertheless, the statue is too heavy for one man to carry and so they agree to work together, occasionally quibbling over their respective cuts and irritating Klark’s conflicted wife Ladet whose premonition that the statue is cursed is well and truly borne out as the two men begin to lose themselves in greed and suspicion. Yet as her closing voice over reminds us their sin is emblematic of their times in their irresponsible and arrogant desire to “sell” their nation’s ancestral treasures, be they forests, rivers, or statues the protection of which should have been their only duty. 

Depleting fish stocks and industrial pollution are also a persistent theme in the entry from Laos as a worried sister explains to her student brother concerned to see nets covered in dust on his return home from university. Xe is worried because his sister has a bruise on her face and seems to have separated from her husband and children she says to look after their mother who, as it turns out, is immune to the ongoing plague and therefore a valuable commodity to those hoping to find a vaccine. The bruise was apparently caused when their older brother, who has since become a warlord, kidnapped mum in order to monopolise her exploitation. The sister wants Xe to kidnap her back, but the deeper he gets into this awkward situation the more conflicted Xe feels knowing that whatever is actually going on both of his siblings are in effect determined to bleed his mother dry for economic gain. 

The precarious position of the older generation and the side effects of industrialisation raise their heads again in chapter three, Myanmar’s The Forgotten Voices of the Mekong in which well-meaning young village chief Charlie determines to “modernise” his community by inviting a mining conglomerate to begin digging gold on their land. An old grandma patiently teaching her grandson to care for the local herb grown for its medicinal properties is the voice of opposition, pointing out that there is nothing wrong with their lives as they are and so she feels they don’t need the complications of the “modernity” Charlie is determined to bring them. He tells her that he’s the chief now and so they’ll do as he says and so she calmly walks out of the meeting, but her animosity is soon vindicated when farmers complain their livestock has been poisoned after drinking water contaminated by the mine. Not long after a child is taken ill. Devils devour everything, but there is something we can do the old woman assures her grandson: make the mountains green again. 

Shifting into a more abstract register, Anocha Suwichakornpong’s Thai entry The Line takes the river as a protagonist through the film within the film playing on a gallery wall though apparently in some way unsatisfying to its creator. Speaking in a robotic Mandarin, the video places an ironic voiceover on top of images of the river and the city juxtaposing an incongruous family history with a vision of modernity. Meanwhile, a young intern makes smalltalk with her temporary bosses who seem to have no time for her about a weird animal captured on camera in the river near her hometown, and the artist explains her intention of dramatising a vision of space and time through the story of the river.  

The sense of the Mekong as liquid time recurs in the final instalment, Vietnam’s The Unseen River, in which two stories, one of youth and the other age, run in parallel. While a young couple make a visit to a temple hoping to find a cure for the boy’s restless sleep, a middle-aged woman catches sight of a somehow familiar dog that serendipitously reunites her with her long-absent first love who went abroad to study shortly before they dammed the river. In a piece of possibly unhelpful advice, the old monk tells the young man that all he needs to do is “believe” in the act of sleeping. Sinking into a deep sleep is like surrendering yourself to the current he explains, directly linking the rythms of life to the river while the young monk attributes their youthful llistlessness, the failure to see a future that has prevented the young couple marrying, to the inability to dream. The river is both past and future, dream and reality. It is disconnection with the natural world which has so affected the young man, something he perhaps repairs borrowing the monk’s decommissioned fishing rod to gaze upon the wide river under the light of the moon. 

Giving voice to the anxieties of climate change, overdevelopment, the unequal power dynamics of large corporations operating in rural communities, the erosion of traditional culture, and the loss of the natural world, MEKONG 2030 issues a strong warning against ecological complacency but also rediscovers a kind of serenity in the river’s eternal presence even as it is perhaps flowing away from us. 

MEKONG 2030 streamed as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival. Readers in Poland will also have the opportunity to stream MEKONG 2030 as part of the 14th Five Flavours Film Festival 25th November to 6th December.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

A Thousand Cuts (Ramona S. Diaz, 2020)

“Your concern is human rights. Mine is human lives” President Rodrigo Duterte disingenuously intones as part of his State of the Nation address, as if in the end they weren’t the same thing. Ramona S. Diaz’ clearheaded yet incendiary documentary A Thousand Cuts follows unfazable journalist Maria Ressa, head of online news site Rappler as she finds herself firmly within the president’s sights for her determination to challenge his “fake news” only to be accused of the same herself. Yet Ressa refuses to back down, holding the line even in the face of extreme threat to her person ranging from spurious prosecution to attempts to intimidate serious enough to have her wearing a flack jacket while travelling only by official car. 

As Ressa points out, the danger is not unique to the Philippines though through her investigations we see her map out the networks of bots and bad actors that allowed populism to prosper through social media, the most online nation apparently a guineapig for geopolitical manipulation. Remarkably even-handed in her presentation, Diaz introduces us to Ressa’s opposite number in Mocha Uson, a former pop idol turned rightwing blogger ensconced in the Duterte camp but scoffing at the idea her job is to spread pro-Duterte propaganda. Like fellow candidate Bato, a former police chief turned head of corrections, she likes to put on a show, a series of K-pop-style dance routines praising the president gracing her social media feeds. Cheerful scenes of dancing and celebration are directly contrasted with the disgruntled face of a female opposition candidate appearing directly below them as if in disapproval of their frivolous merrymaking.

Then again, the problem is the president is often overly “honest”, casually implying that he has personally killed and has no qualms doing so again as Ressa attempts to question him as if he were an ordinary politician. He is crass and sexist, constantly boasting of his sexual prowess at the podium while emphasising his virility,  literally playing the macho strongman, yet even as he says directly that he will kill people keep supporting him presumably believing that he means he’s going to kill other people but not them. One older woman even gets up to a mic at an event where Ressa is speaking to point out that the extra judicial killings may be awful but her pension’s gone up and she personally feels quite safe as someone unconnected to drugs so she struggles to see what the problem is. Meanwhile, the reporters recount the personal toll covering the killings can take on them as they witness the bodies lining the streets, discovered by wailing relatives protesting that their sons, husbands, and brothers were good people who didn’t deserve to die this way, not that anybody does. Not so much a war on drugs as a war on the poor, but populist politicians don’t hang on to their power by making things better, only by making them worse and then blaming someone else.  

Simply by reporting on the injustice of the killings, Ressa becomes a figurehead for the hate directed against Rappler and other news organisations prepared to challenge the president’s narrative. We see him humiliate a young reporter, answering her questions with an accusation of a lack of patriotism, before having her excluded from government briefings. The reporter later breaks down, revealing the strain placed on her by constant paranoia not just of becoming a direct target for government action but that she may someday make a mistake that would be used heavily against her. Yet she too is buoyed by the relentlessly positive presence of Ressa who refuses to be cowed, insisting that it’s not too late and that hope will win in the end. Don’t be afraid, she insists in the face of Duterte’s mantra that there must be fear, violence is his strength. Yet as the film’s title implies, the death of democracy comes in a thousand tiny cuts rather than a single blow, the cornerstones of accountability quietly chipped away while our attention is pulled in a thousand different directions. The parallels are obvious, populism on the march all over the globe, but there are at least those like Ressa willing to speak truth to power no matter what power might do to stop us listening. 

A Thousand Cuts streamed as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Drama Queen (Sắc Đẹp Dối Trá, Kay Nguyễn, 2020)

“I just changed my gender, I didn’t commit a crime” the heroine of Kay Nguyễn’s Drama Queen (Sắc Đẹp Dối Trá) answers after being publicly outed during a beauty contest. Sometimes people need a push to finally achieve their dreams, though witnessing a murder and becoming the target of shady gangsters is certainly an extreme motivation. Starring transgender pop star Huong Giang, Nguyễn’s playful drama is a win for representation as its steely heroine finds the courage to claim her space while keeping one step ahead of the mob and one step closer to beauty queen stardom. 

As the film opens, Duong (Huong Giang) is a lowly stuntman unexpectedly given the chance to shine when the lead actor goes AWOL. Unfortunately, Duong is a little too in love with the spotlight and can’t resist showing off his skills, effortlessly fighting off the ninjas who were supposed to despatch his character so he can finish his dance. In addition to irritating the crew, Duong’s improvements also result in the costume getting damaged, landing him a $500 bill he can in no way afford. The incident does at least introduce him to Hao, the actor who will be taking over. Unfortunately, however, the next time Duong encounters Hao he’s being stabbed in the street, later realising he’s been offed by Thien, the gangster who runs the stuntmen. Naively ringing his boss who turns out to be in league with Thien, Duong puts a target on his own back. Taking his friend Cutie’s (Phat La) advice and the money neighbour Ky (Puka) had been saving for a boob job he heads to Thailand for the gender reassignment surgery he always longed for but could never afford. 

The irony is that while Duong is getting her surgery, her father also falls ill and neither she nor her family have money to pay for his treatment having just spent it on her own. Though Duong’s mother had been extremely supportive, giving her all her savings and encouraging her to “get the best surgery and be beautiful”, Duong’s father disowned her on learning of her transgender identity and rejects her when she tries to visit him in hospital. Nevertheless, she remains determined to find the money to pay for his operation which is why she ends up entering the Miss Mother Earth beauty contest which admits only “natural” beauties who’ve achieved their good looks through hard work alone. 

While it might be assumed that taking part in a high profile beauty pageant when you’re meant to be in hiding from scary gangsters might not be the best idea, Duong is confident no one is going to recognise her, something that is more or less borne out by the fact that after a series of strange coincidences she ends up sharing a room with Ky who decided to enter to competition herself after catching sight of Cutie’s flyers and appears not to realise who she is. In it for the money more than the affirmation, Duong knows she has to keep her transgender identity secret or risk getting kicked out of the competition while challenged both by the idea of possible romance with sweet and handsome hotel man Tuan (Tuan Tran) and the presence of a gangster mole amongst the beauty queens after Ky in the mistaken belief that she maybe Duong. 

“Secrets make a woman a woman” Tuan unironically tells her, but Duong faces a series of very real threats because of her desire to live her truth. Publicly outed in the incident which opened the film, she grabs the mic to give a powerful speech, pointing out that before anyone mentioned the word transgender they all thought she was a hero for saving her friend’s life from a would-be-assassin, now all of a sudden she’s a criminal about to be manhandled off the stage. Yet in defiantly stepping into her own spotlight and claiming her space, she gains the confidence to be all of herself while forcing those around her to accept her as she is. Her new-found confidence inspires Cutie to pursue his own true self, as well as earning her a few fans of her own while the bad guys are forced into silence. A fairly surreal adventure encompassing everything from hitmen conspiracy to beauty pageant backstabbing, Drama Queen never takes itself too seriously but is rigorously sincere in messages of acceptance and the right of all to live their most authentic life. 

Drama Queen streamed as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

All the Things We Never Said (生きちゃった, Yuya Ishii, 2020)

The broken dreams of youth and middle-aged malaise push a trio of former high school friends towards existential crisis in Yuya Ishii’s melancholy exploration of emotional distance,  All the Things We Never Said (生きちゃった, Ikichatta). Commissioned as part of the B2B A Love Supreme project created by the Hong Kong International Film Festival Society and China’s Heaven Pictures which tasked six Asian filmmakers with the task of proving that high quality films can still be made on a micro-budget, Ishii’s latest finds him in the same register as his poetic take on urban angst The Tokyo Night Sky is Always the Densest Shade of Blue as his frustrated protagonists each pay a heavy price for the seeming inability to communicate their true feelings honestly. 

Opening with an idyllic scene of three high school friends enjoying a breezy summer day, Ishii cuts abruptly to the present, interrupting the wistful love song playing in the background mid-flow. Now in his 30s, Atsuhisa (Taiga Nakano) is a married father whose only dream is to be able to afford a nice house with a garden for his wife and daughter, maybe even get a dog. To this end, he’s been taking lessons in English and Mandarin with high school friend Takeda (Ryuya Wakaba) with the intention of one day starting their own business though they once dreamed of becoming musicians. All of that comes to nothing, however, when he begins to feel dizzy at work one day and returns home early to find his wife, Natsumi (Yuko Oshima), with another man. Unable to offer any real sound of protest, he accidentally smashes a panel on the glass door to their bedroom, apologises for interrupting, and leaves in a daze to pick up his young daughter Suzu (Yuno Ota) from school. 

Natsumi’s infidelity evidently comes as a complete surprise, though it seems obvious that their marriage is far from perfect. “My life is just stress and getting fatter” Natsumi openly complains to Takeda, her sense of inertia and impossibility seemingly more than simple dissatisfaction with her life as an ordinary housewife. For his part, Atsuhisa is as emotionally distant as they come, a near silent zombie dead eyed and permanently absent from himself. He is continually preoccupied by the absence of his late grandfather, now nothing more than an increasingly anonymous photograph on an altar as if he never existed at all. Atsuhisa asks himself if his grandfather really lived as a way of avoiding the same question in himself as he sleepwalks through a conventional life that proves infinitely unsatisfying while he chases elusive dreams of comfort and security. 

Natsumi’s revelation that she’s been completely miserable for the entirety of their married life because she’s never felt loved likewise shocks him, but if her intent was to provoke emotional honesty in her husband it fails. She pushes him to fight, to offer some kind of resistance but he simply accepts her decision to end the marriage. The sense of impotence is palpable, Natsumi turning off the TV set because she can hardly do anything about the reactors at Fukushima Daiichi so what’s the point in knowing about them. “How else can we live?” someone else later adds, other than to simply decide not to think about the things you cannot change. Atsuhisa tells himself that it’s meaningless anyway, it will all “fade away” in the end so there’s no sense in trying to resist. 

Yet he continues to struggle, wondering in a sense if he could perhaps claim agency over his life if only he could learn to communicate his true feelings honestly. He asks himself if it’s because he’s Japanese that he can’t, if his culture actively prevents him from speaking freely when it comes to desire. Of course, everyone else is Japanese too which perhaps makes his question moot, but those around him do indeed seem to suffer from the same sense of wilful repression, even Natsumi tragically withholding her real feelings and ultimately working against herself out of a mistaken sense of guilt. “You don’t love me, that’s why you can be honest” an ex of Atsuhisa’s points out during an emotional farewell, cutting to the quick in suggesting that his problem is that he fears the risks of emotional intimacy. 

Two boys and one girl is always going to be a story tinged with a degree of sadness no matter how it turns out, but on that idyllic summer day no one could ever have thought it would end like this. Takeda, manfully keeping his true desires under wraps perhaps in love with Natsumi himself but too diffident to have said anything or overly mindful of his friends’ feelings, does his best to be the emotional buffer supporting both halves of a couple rapidly spiralling away from themselves but is ultimately unable to prevent them from making decisions they may regret even as they are are made. “My love wasn’t good enough” Atsuhisa laments in his inability to make it felt, finding proof of life only in absence through the memory of those shining summer days. A little rough and ready around the edges but filled with a raw poetry Ishii’s melancholy drama puts its hero through the emotional wringer but in the end perhaps sets him free to speak his heart even if others are too ashamed to look.

All the Things We Never Said streamed as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Lost Lotus (未见莲华, Liu Shu, 2019)

A grieving woman finds herself caught between the tenets of Buddhist thought and the contradictions of the modern China in Liu Shu’s emotionally complex drama, Lost Lotus (未见莲华, wèi jiàn lián huá). The paradoxes of Buddhism are, in a sense, a mirror for those of the contemporary society which has become mercilessly consumerist, obsessed with the material in direct rejection of the spiritual, yet even those who outwardly profess Buddhist values of compassion, goodness, and forgiveness are not perhaps free of the consumerist mindset in which everything has a price and for every transgression there is simply a fine to be paid in the next life rather than this. 

An intellectual teacher, Wu Yu (Yan Wensi) describes herself as irritated by her mother’s (Zhao Wei) devotion to Buddhism, viewing it in a sense as slightly backward and superstitious. Nevertheless when her mother is suddenly killed in a late night hit and run, she finds herself agreeing to hold a traditional Buddhist funeral guided by her mother’s friends at the temple despite having been warned by the police that going ahead with the cremation will obviously make it much more difficult to find the killer. While immersing herself in Buddhist thought helps her reconnect with her mother and deal with her grief, she continues to search for the driver determined to get some kind of Earthly justice in addition to the karmic. 

Increasingly worried and frustrated by Yu’s growing religious mania, her husband (Zhao Xuan) concentrates on finding those responsible in the hope of bringing closure so that they can try to move on with their lives as a couple. A kind and compassionate, modern man (he evidently does all the cooking), Yu’s husband does his best to support his wife in the depths of her grief but is himself conflicted particularly when he discovers that the man driving the car is a member of a rich and powerful elite who believes himself to be above the laws of men. 

Yu’s newfound Buddhism begins to change her outlook, though she struggles to orient herself in a world which is so at odds with its twin contradictory philosophies. Running parallel to her own quest for justice, she finds herself drawn into the struggles of one of her pupils who wanted to quit school because he has to look after his father who was badly beaten by thugs working for developers angry that he had refused relocation. Yu is originally quite unsympathetic, she and her husband blaming the boy’s father for valuing money over his life, cynically believing he must have been angling for a bigger compensation pay out though of course it is probably not so simple. While Yu and her husband are a two-income, professional household, the boy’s family are living in poverty having been evicted from their home, the father bedridden because of his injuries and therefore unable to work. Yu’s quest for justice strains her relationship with her husband and may later have economic consequences as his career prospects are used as a tool to convince them to back off, but her need for retribution affects only herself. The boy’s mother, however, feels terribly guilty knowing her obsessive quest to have the thugs held accountable is endangering her son’s future, but knowing also that she cannot simply give up and let them win. 

This is exactly the dilemma that preoccupies Yu as she weighs up how much of her anger is personal and how much societal. The driver, Chen (Xiao Yiping), offers them sizeable compensation which her husband is minded to accept, not for its monetary value but because taking the money means it’s over. But Yu wants “justice”, she resents the idea that there was a price on her mother’s life or that the culprit can simply pay a fine to assuage his guilt. Even justice, it seems, has been commodified. Yet Chen is also a Buddhist, subverting his beliefs to absolve himself in emphasising that all is fated and Yu’s mother’s death is a result of her karma from a previous life. His sin now pay later philosophy grates with Yu, undermining her new found faith in the Buddhist principles of compassion and goodness as the supposed devotee directly refuses to apologise for his role in the death of her mother. 

As her husband asks her, however, what sort of justice is she looking for? Does she want an apology, a jail sentence, to kill him with her own hands? Yu doesn’t know, lost in a fog of grief and spiritual confusion attempting to parse the contradictions of her mother’s faith and a society that has become selfish and consumerist, founded on elitist inequality which allows the rich and powerful to escape the constraints of conventional morality let alone the laws of men. In the end the only justice she can find is a retributive act of violence that perhaps forces Chen to feel something at least of her pain, paving the way for a kind of catharsis though not perhaps healing. An embittered portrait of the modern China, Lost Lotus suggests there can be no justice in an unjust society and only an eternal purgatory for those who cannot abandon their desire to find it. 

Lost Lotus streamed as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.

Death of Nintendo (Raya Martin, 2020)

Raya Martin made his name as a pioneer of experimental cinema in the Philippines. While his more recent films have perhaps drawn increasingly closer to the mainstream, it might still come as a surprise that his latest feature is a retro teen movie of the kind that no-one really makes anymore save as an exercise in nostalgia. As the title may imply Death of Nintendo, scripted by Valerie Castillo Martinez, is indeed a nostalgia fest set in the post-Marcos early ‘90s, in a sense the dying days of the golden age of Mario, but it’s also a subtle critique of contemporary Filipino masculinity, a uncoming-of-age drama in which boys never really grow up but continue to occupy a space of perpetual adolescence. 

In a nebulous early ‘90s Manila, 13-year-old Paolo (Noel Comia Jr.) is an introspective rich kid obsessed with playing Nintendo of which his fiercely overprotective, helicopter mother Patricia (Agot Isidro) largely approves because it keeps him home in his room where she can keep an eye on him. She’s less keen, however, on Paolo’s circle of friends which includes both fellow rich kids Gilligan (Jiggerfelip Sementilla) and his sister Mimaw (Kim Chloie Oquendo) whose father has recently run off to America with another woman, and Kachi (John Vincent Servilla) who lives in the slums with his lothario older brother Badong (Jude Matthew Servilla) and sex worker mother Shirley (Angelina Canapi). Meanwhile, the gang’s arch nemesis, the uncouth and distinctly mean Filipino-American returnee Jimbo (Cayden Williams), is intent on making all their lives a misery and Paolo is in the first flushes of adolescent romance mooning over popular kid Shiara (Elijah Alejo). The upshot is that the boys are keen to become men as quickly as possible by undergoing the Tuli ritual circumcision, travelling to the remote village witch doctor who operated on Badong and apparently turned him into the top stud he is today.  

As all of the father figures are absent, Badong is the closest paternal presence that any of them have though in real terms his example may not be much of one to follow. He currently has a steady job working at the local Jollibee, but as Kachi fails to realise is also being courted by the petty gangsters of the slums, while his mother is quick to warn him about his promiscuous ways and possibilities of getting a girl into trouble. Neverthless, what all the guys want is to instantly transform into an idealised vision of masculinity largely gained from movies and pop culture rather than the weedy boys they currently feel themselves to be. Tellingly they see something of this in Jimbo and are intimidated by him because of it, later losing their fear after realising that he has not yet undergone the ritual and is therefore still a boy himself.

Mimaw, meanwhile, who has always been a tomboy is confronted by notions of idealised femininity after she becomes friends with Shiara and her coterie of popular girls. Allowing the other young women to give her makeovers, she wonders if it’s OK that her friendship group is her brother and his friends and why it is she’s more comfortable in jeans and T-shirts than skirts and heels. When Paolo asks her to put in a good word for him with Shiara she’s conflicted, and though it’s suggested that she’s got a crush on the most sensitive of the boys, we can’t help wondering if it’s not Shiara that she may secretly be drawn to. 

In any case, as the boys spend their time on childish competitions of masculinity, it’s Mimaw who’s perhaps beginning to realise that she wants something more out of life. Eventually, the NES is replaced by a SEGA Mega Drive, the boys having completed the ritual and become “men”, wearing jeans and smart shirts with greased hair yet looking almost identical, still boys on the inside. Mimaw prepares to move on, leaving the boys behind as they again suggest video games or basketball only for Kachi to decline because he doesn’t want to muss his hair and Gilligan because he’s got a hot date to prepare for later in the evening. The boys, it seems, have only swapped their games for girls, while Mimaw has truly grown-up, something telling us this was her story all along only no was really her paying much attention. Bathed in the golden glow of an eternal, adolescent summer in which there are earthquakes and eruptions figurative and literal as the boys edge their way towards a longed for manliness, Death of Nintendo is perhaps less conventional than it first seemed while filled with the ache of nostalgia for a more innocent era.

Death of Nintendo streams in California until Oct. 31 as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Me and the Cult Leader (AGANAI -悪の陳腐さについての新たな報告, Atsushi Sakahara, 2020)

How can you continue to serve an ideology which you know is responsible for a heinous act that offends your sense of moral righteousness? That’s a question that Atsushi Sakahara, a survivor of the sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway, finds himself asking in his documentary Me and the Cult Leader (AGANAI -悪の陳腐さについての新たな報告, Aku no Chinpusa Nitsuite Aratana Hokoku), as he meets with Hiroshi Araki, a current member of Aleph, the successor to Aum, the cult which planned and executed the 1995 act of terrorism which led to the deaths of 13 people and left 6200 injured, many like Sakahara with life changing consequences. 

Yet Sakahara’s purpose is the opposite of polemical, he merely reaches out to Araki in an effort to understand the mindset not only of someone who joined Aum in the early ‘90s and was a member at the time of the attack though not directly involved, but of someone who stayed and continues to believe in the teachings of cult leader Asahara who was executed in 2018 after years on death row along with other members responsible for Japan’s only exposure to domestic terrorism. Throughout it all, however what he seems to want is some kind of apology, or at least an act of contrition, something which proves elusive as the distant, thoughtful Araki largely refuses to engage as if afraid to accept that the ideology to which he has devoted all his adult life may in fact be corrupt and empty. 

Araki’s justifications run mainly to technicalities. He does not exactly deny that members of Aum were responsible for the attack, but explains that their guilt is the most logical explanation given the available evidence which includes their own confessions and so concludes it is likely the truth. The two men travel together on a kind of pilgrimage back to their respective hometowns which happen to be in the same area of the country, while in another coincidence they also attended the same university at the same time. A jovial presence, Sakahara attempts to hurry the near silent Araki along, pushing him to open up which he eventually does but failing to elicit from him anything which might begin to free him from the icy grip of his ideology. 

Sakahara subtitles his film “A modern report on the banality of evil”, and there’s certainly something of that as the film opens in a subway station, Sakahara and Araki merely two ordinary middle-aged men in anoraks waiting for a train. Yet Araki is clearly not an “evil” man. He appears to be thoughtful and sensitive, often breaking down in tears as the journey forces him to remember his life before he renounced the world, the vision of his grandmother waving him off at the station after a summer holiday leading back to that of his mother as he severed connection with her to join with Aum. He doesn’t quite explain what led him to join the cult save being overwhelmed by Asahara’s charisma when he gave a speech at Kyoto university in the early ‘90s, Sakahara having witnessed him arrive the year before but jokingly shouting out for the famously outlandish cult leader to show off his talent for levitation, save that he became disillusioned with consumerism after a pencil case he lusted over as a child lost its lustre when he got it home. The training, he goes on, caused him to lose the capacity for joy or pleasure, leaving him he explains with no other choice than to join the cult because there was no longer anything left for him in the outside world which had become unbearably painful as a result.

Yet knowing what he knows, how can he go on practicing Asahara’s teachings? Sakahara tries not to push him, only once or twice pressing for an answer as to whether or not he sees and understands his suffering and feels remorse, later introducing him to both his parents in an effort to prove that actions have wider consequences, that he is not the only victim but that others suffer because of his suffering. Meeting Sakahara’s equally compassionate mother and father does appear to move something with him, evoking a loose apology even if he immediately walks back on it with some manichean justifications that Sakahara is also responsible for everything that’s happened to him because it is all a result of his choices, good and bad. 

The unavoidable conclusion is perhaps that Araki is simply afraid to confront the implications of everything he’s seeing lest his entire worldview collapse and he realises he’s wasted all of his adult life serving a corrupt and empty ideology. Sakahara acts with total warmth and compassion for his dilemma, even at one point quite literally buying him a coat because he’s only brought his anorak despite it being freezing (Araki also constantly carries a sleeping bag because his asceticism seems to extend to beds and futons), patiently listening to his often sad stories of youth but every revelation is followed by extended silence, Araki shifting back inside himself unwilling risk bursting the bubble. Sakahara, however, remains patient hoping for the day that the cultist will finally see the light. 

 Me and the Cult Leader streams in the US until Oct. 31 as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Memories to Choke On, Drinks to Wash Them Down (夜香・鴛鴦・深水埗, Leung Ming Kai & Kate Reilly, 2019)

Neither as maudlin nor as ironic as its witty English title implies, Leung Ming Kai and Kate Reilly’s four-part anthology Memories to Choke On, Drinks to Wash Them Down (夜香・鴛鴦・深水埗) attempts to capture the flavours of a Hong Kong in transition. Imbued with a gentle nostalgia the four stories do not so much eulogise as celebrate the island’s unique culture while perhaps provoking questions about an uncertain future in the face of political instability and widespread protest. 

The first of the four shorts, however, looks back towards the past as an old lady suffering with dementia repeatedly tells the same handful of stories to her patient Indonesian helper, Mia. In an ironic twist, the tale takes the two women on a circular journey as Chi Yin, the old woman, becomes determined to reconnect with her history through visiting a reunion for those who came to Hong Kong from her village on the Mainland while Mia patiently tries to explain that her son has instructed her not to take his mother out. Eventually she relents, humorously videoing the old woman promising not to tell her son so she can show her later, but thinks better of it after realising Chi Yin’s real longing to visit him at his job in the city. Mia is of course separated from her own son while caring for Chi Yin, the commonalities between the two women becoming ever more clear as their stories mix, mingle, and repeat in the confused mind of the older woman herself a migrant to Hong Kong who came to the island in childhood, recounting a life of hardship thankfully long since past. 

The city’s economic development is also at the forefront of the second tale which sees two grown up brothers revisiting their mother’s toy store in a now rundown part of town where, as another store keeper puts it, everyone is old and so there is no more call for toys. That might be one reason why it seems that their mother has decided to sell up, but the loss of their history seems to weigh heavier on one brother than the other. While the older has married and has a child of his own with another on the way, the younger has lost his job and secretly wants to take over the shop himself only is uncertain how this news will read to his mother. While they reminisce and recover long buried treasures of their youth, the differences and dilemmas between the two men are perhaps emblematic of the push and pull of modern Hong Kong torn in two directions uncertain which parts of the past to discard and which to keep. Nevertheless, the two men eventually find common ground and mutual support even as their conflicting desires send them each in opposing directions. 

The two at the centre of Yuenyeung meanwhile were always destined to part, yet their separation has its share of confusion and awkwardness. The titular Yuenyeung is a local drink acknowledged as intangible culture which has, according to the knowledgable protagonist, a slightly dark history in that it was created in part to enable further exploitation of port workers under British colonialism and consists of super strong Ceylon tea and caffeine high coffee mixed with condensed milk. American teaching assistant Ruth is keen to try it as part of her total immersion in Hong Kong culture, but local economics teacher John isn’t much of a fan not just because of its slightly sour history but because he seems to have an internalised snobbery when it comes to being a Hong Konger. Nevertheless, with an obvious ulterior motive that Ruth either is oblivious to or chooses to ignore, he joins her on her voyage through the city’s lower end eateries where the locals choose to eat with the occasional visit to a “romantic” KFC which whatever else you might want to say about it has a lovely view of an idealised Hong Kong street scene. Tellingly, Ruth is already planning to move on to China, while a rebound John who perhaps misunderstood her has his eyes ironically set on an extended trip to the States on a kind of cultural odyssey of his own. 

Breaking entirely with the first three sequences, and in truth a little out of place, the last is the most direct in abandoning the dialogue heavy, two-hander focus for pure documentary following an eccentric young woman running as a candidate for political office in order to provide opposition for an otherwise unopposed incumbent during the fractious 2019 elections. Jennifer describes those who don’t support the protests as “weird”, but also affirms that ideally she wants a steady job in a bank and to live a dull, comfortable life as a “useless” person. When not out flyering she works as a barista/bar tender and later claims that she didn’t even want to be on the council because the local populace is quite annoying. In a strange way she provides the perfect encapsulation of a fractious political moment, a mix of surprisingly conventional thought patterns coupled with a real desire for freedom and lasting social change. Never quite as a maudlin as the title suggests, Memories to Choke On, Drinks to Wash Them Down is perhaps filled with a nostalgia for a Hong Kong that’s not quite gone but also has within it a quiet resilience if only in its insistence on memory as a political act. 

Memories to Choke On, Drinks to Wash Them Down streams in California until Oct. 31 as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)