Sunod (Carlo Ledesma, 2019)

A mother goes to great lengths to be with her daughter in twisty Philippine horror Sunod. In a tense tale of supernatural dread, Sunod’s heroine contends not only with mysterious curse and psychological disturbance but with social inequalities, conservative social codes, and a health crisis while trying to protect her young daughter but soon finds herself dragged into a web of black magic intrigue, her calm, rational and compassionate response to becoming the target of a demonic scam only used against her by her unscrupulous aggressors. 

Never married single-mother Olivia (Carmina Villaroel) is wearing herself to the bone with worry over her teenage daughter Annelle (Krystal Brimner), a long-term hospital patient with a dangerous congenital heart defect that apparently requires expensive medical treatments Oliver can ill afford. Reluctant to be away from her daughter, she knows she needs to find another job but draws a blank in the currently difficult employment environment. At her wits’ end, she steps into a recruitment fair intended for students in search of part-time work but manages to impress the recruiter with her top English skills and spiky attitude. Her new job sees her working nights at a call centre where she struggles to adjust to the intense office atmosphere while bonding with “professional trainee” Mimi (Kate Alejandrino) and sympathetic boss Lance (JC Santos). 

Even on her first day, however, Olivia begins to notice something strange about the building where her new job is located which apparently once housed a hospital and is kitted out in gothic style complete with statues of angels and sweeping staircases. During a power cut one day after work, Olivia is approached by a strange little girl, Nerisa (Rhed Bustamante), and unwisely takes her by the hand, guiding her out of the building. Ominous events intensify, she begins hearing things and getting strange calls while Annelle’s heart condition appears to have been miraculously healed only she’s also had a complete transplant of personality. 

Of course, much of this could be down to Olivia’s fraying nerves. We’re told she’s not slept well in months and is already on various kinds of medication while obviously under extreme stress working overtime to try and pay for her daughter’s medical care. Trapped at the bottom of the economic ladder, she also faces a degree of social stigma as an unmarried mother, as she reveals nervously confessing to Mimi that she’s raised her daughter alone and so might not be the best person to ask for dating advice. Mimi, meanwhile, is an ultra modern freeter, flitting between a series of temporary jobs uncertain whether to get married for convenience’s sake or make a go of independence by committing to a career. After listening to Olivia’s story, she decides to give things a go at the call centre and the two women generate an easy friendship despite the difference in age and experience. 

Olivia meanwhile finds herself in a difficult position, propositioned by the previously “nice” Lance who hands her a fat check to help cover Annelle’s medical bills but then tries to get his money’s worth by trying it on in the employees’ rest room. She manages to fend him off, but is conflicted in her decision to keep the money out of a sense of desperation. Plagued by strange nightmares in which she sees herself bury her daughter alive, she begins to lose her sense of reality, half convinced that Annelle has been possessed by the spirit of Nerisa who, she has discovered, may have some connection with the building’s dark history as a World War II hospital. 

“When you have a child, there’s always a constant feeling of fear because her life is in your hands” Olivia tries to explain to Mimi, illuminating a more general kind of maternal anxiety than her acute worry over her daughter’s health. A compassionate soul, she tries to help Nerisa settle her unfinished business by helping her find her mum in the hope that she can then “move on” leaving her and Annelle in peace, but finds herself entangled by dark maternity and under threat from a motherly entity that quite literally cannot let go. Driven half out of her mind by an unforgiving, patriarchal society, Olivia tries to do the best for her daughter but struggles to escape her sense of futility in being unable to protect her either from her illness or the society in which they live. Rich and gothic in atmosphere with its creepy disused hospital setting replete with empty corridors and malfunctioning lifts, Sunod’s quietly mounting sense of dread leaves its heroine at the mercy of forces beyond her control, bound by inescapable anxiety. 


Sunod streamed as part of this year’s Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

i -Documentary of the Journalist- (i-新聞記者ドキュメント-, Tatsuya Mori, 2019)

“I’m not obliged to answer you” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga irritably tells a journalist part way through a press briefing. It begs the question, if you’re not willing to be interrogated then what are the briefings really for? Something which unflappable reporter Isoko Mochizuki, subject of Tatsuya Mori’s documentary i -Documentary of the Journalist- (i-新聞記者ドキュメント-, i -Shimbun Kisha Document-) makes a point of asking but of course receives no reply. Reporting for Tokyo Shimbun, Mochizuki has earned a reputation for being “troublesome”, refusing to let politicians off the hook without getting a proper answer. This is of course what a reporter is supposed to do, she’s only doing her job in holding those in power to account in the name of the people, but Japanese politicians are used to deference from journalists who pull in their punches in fear of losing access. She is also the author of the book which inspired last year’s box office smash political thriller The Journalist in which a dogged reporter finds herself an unlikely ally of a conflicted bureaucrat who is minded to blow the whistle on a governmental land scandal. 

As we see, Mochizuki’s everyday life is nowhere near as glamorous or sensational. In fact, Mori struggles to keep up with her as she finds herself constantly on the move dragging a small suitcase and large tote bag all around town while displaying an ironic tendency to get lost trying to exit official buildings. Meanwhile, none of the people she attempts to visit for comment on the relocation of an SDF facility in Okinawa is in when she calls and, again, she has trouble gaining access to the building in order to leave them a note. 

Access, as we soon realise, is the pressing issue. Mochizuki is a well known reporter for a major paper so it would not be politically expedient to have her removed from the room, but even so the powers that be do their best to obstruct her ability to gain answers, firstly by having an usher loudly instruct her to get to the question while she patiently tries to make her point. It amounts to a kind of game. Mochizuki knows Suga will issue a non-reply, insist that the government is acting in accordance with regulations while refusing further comment, and so is using the question to raise awareness of the issue which necessarily takes time in providing context. They then introduce an unofficial policy restricting Mochizuki, but no other reporter, to two questions only to prevent her pressing her point, before escalating matters by crudely issuing an open directive to journalists to avoid basing their comments on “fake” information, attempting to invalidate her line of questioning by implying it is partisan and offered in bad faith. 

The problem is partly that, as Mori is keen to suggest, the system is rigged because of press complicity with government. We learn that the Abe administration, which has long been beset by scandal, has been keeping a stranglehold on the official press club since it took office in 2012. Mori himself tries to get access to briefings to film Mochizuki but is told that it is almost impossible for freelance journalists to gain approval, while a visit to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club reveals that it is no easier for international journalists who may gain access but are not generally given the opportunity to ask questions nor can they speak directly to members of government whom, it is said, are not terribly interested in Japan’s overseas reputation. Papers afraid of losing their spot in the room avoid directly criticising the government, while the rightwing press is content to do the government’s bidding such as in its vilification of the Kagoikes, the couple at the centre of the Moritomo Gakuen scandal in which Prime Minister Abe’s wife was herself implicated, or its attempt to smear a whistleblower on a possibly corrupt sale of land for a veterinary school to an old friend of Abe’s. 

For those reasons while other journalists and politicians may be sympathetic to Mochizuki’s cause in private she receives little support in the room. An increased profile and persistent harassment campaign also brings out the cranks including a death threat from a man who uses a word many would regard as a racial slur to brand her a North Korean spy. The people, however, approve organising a demo in support outside the Diet building insisting on press freedom and government accountability. The title may take things too far in its emphatic “I”, the reporter is not the story, but advocates for an end to the conformist culture of deference to power in which journalists willing to ask difficult questions will no longer be a “troublesome” aberration but the welcomed norm. 


i -Documentary of the Journalist- streamed as part of this year’s Udine Far East Film Festival. Viewers in America will also have the opportunity to catch the film when it streams as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Chasing Dream (我的拳王男友, Johnnie To, 2019)

“You gotta give everything to get everything” according to an intense rocker in Johnnie To’s musical boxing romance, Chasing Dream (我的拳王男友). What turns out to be most important however is not physical endurance but emotional authenticity, if you want to be taken seriously then you have to take yourself seriously first and that means learning to find the courage to embrace your authentic self. A tale of two crazy kids chasing the Chinese Dream, To’s colourful fantasy world is not without its bite as he leans in hard to what it costs to succeed and not in what is often a merciless society.

Our hero Tiger (Jacky Heung Cho), “The Gluttonous Boxer”, is a young man who broke with his boxing master to step into the MMA ring but is also an enforcer for a shady local loansharking gang run by his manager. Aware he is approaching the end of his career – a doctor later tells him he’s in danger of going blind, rupturing his liver, and getting Parkinson’s – Tiger’s life changes one day when he recognises one of the ring girls, Cuckoo (Wang Keru), as the granddaughter of an old woman who used to sell noodles back when he studied boxing in his rural hometown. Unfortunately, Tiger’s boss has also recognised her because she is in deep debt with the mob. Some of the guys want to cut their losses and sell her on to the sex trade but Tiger, seemingly indifferent, claims he can find her a way to work off her debt and thereby kickstarts his rescue not only of her but of himself from the increasingly empty life of an ageing prize fighter. 

What he discovers is that Cuckoo is harbouring intense resentment over being seduced and betrayed by one of China’s biggest pop stars who made himself a name as the “king of originality” after stealing all of her songs and leaving her in the lurch. Qu Fengfeng (Ma Xiaohui) is now a judge on China’s biggest TV singing competition Perfect Diva and Cuckoo has a plan to confront him by getting on the show, the only snag being that she is extremely unpolished as a performer. Tiger, meanwhile, wants to get out of the ring and has a plan to start his own hotpot empire essentially by copying all the best bits of the major chains and bringing them together. He vows to help Cuckoo train by having her mimic the performance styles of major stars, but what she quickly discovers is that there is no substitute for emotional authenticity. A fellow constant decides to switch her routine at the last minute after catching sight of Cuckoo rehearsing, but is unceremoniously voted off by judges who’d rather she “performed a tacky fan dance” (as she was originally planning to do) than simply copycatting famous artists. Challenged that her songs are too similar to Qu Fengfeng’s Cuckoo snaps back that it’s his style that’s close to hers, earning the admiration of astute female judge Zhao Ying (Wu Yitong) who can perhaps detect the artist inside her beginning to free itself from her sense of insecurity. 

Achieving your dreams can however come at a heavy cost. Pearl “the kick ass rocker” (Kelly Yu Wenwen) has an intense, aggressive performance style but in a running gag turns up at each consecutive audition with a new incapacity, eventually using a wheelchair and wearing a back brace only able to move her arms. “Totally worth it in the name of music!” she cheerfully explains, literally destroying herself to get to the top. Tiger does something much the same exploited as he is by his unscrupulous gangster manager, shouting out “it doesn’t hurt” as he trains by having people jump on his belly, but the battering he takes is not so much for himself as for others, stepping back into the ring in defence first of Cuckoo and then of his dejected master, Ma Qing (Shao Bing), whose attempt to defend the dignity of the noble art of boxing against the modern upstart MMA goes horribly wrong. But Tiger cannot fight others’ battles for them, and the only way he can win is by being himself while honouring their legacy. 

Finally finding how to bare their souls for all to see and “have someone share the fatigue of loneliness”, the pair learn to recalibrate their dreams while falling in love discovering that mutual support is their guiding light as they give each other the strength to be all they can be. Ostensibly somewhere in Mainland China, To’s make believe, retro future city has a colourful comic book intensity that adds a mythic quality to the saga of Tiger and Cuckoo that is perfectly in tune with his dreamy romanticism in which sudden flights of fancy including a full-blown Bollywood-style dance sequence seem entirely natural. A surprisingly moving, wilfully absurd musical love story between wildly grinning pugilist and a young woman learning to sing from the the heart, Chasing Dream is a delightful sugar pop confection in which two crazy kids find love in the ring and with it the power to believe in themselves and a better future.


Chasing Dream streamed as part of this year’s Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (Cantonese, no subtitles)

Victim(s) (加害者、被害人, Layla Zhuqing Ji, 2020)

“People don’t care about the truth, they just need someone to blame because that’s the easy thing to do” according to a secondary victim caught up in the complicated events which led to the killing at the centre of Layla Zhuqing Ji’s empathetic debut feature, Victim(s) (加害者、被害人, Jiāhàizhě, Bèihàirén). A tale of two mothers, Victim(s) does its best not to apportion blame to any one individual but points the finger at a rigid and austere conformist society in which conservative social codes and a culture of victim blaming conspire to restrict freedom and breed unhappiness. 

Cast in the roles of victim and killer are high school students Gangzi (Kahoe Hon), the son of a poor masseuse (Remon Lim) stabbed to death beside an ATM, and Chen (Fu Xianjun) son of a wealthy single-mother (Huang Lu) who some say made her money in questionable ways. Students at the school speak of discord between the two boys, describing Chen as strange, a bit of a loner with an unpleasant superiority complex that, coupled with his status as top of the class, led him to look down on those around him. They say he viewed Gangzi with disdain because of his working class background and was upset because they both liked the same girl, transfer student Qianmo (Wilson Hsu), but she turned him down in favour of Gangzi. After a few days on the run, Chen turns himself in and confesses to the crime but has a slightly different story, claiming that, in fact, he was bullied by the other kids including Gangzi partly because he was wealthy, they were roughing him up for money, and partly because he was an outsider at school widely disliked as a swot. 

Of course, both mothers are convinced their sons are perfect angels but are eventually led to discover that perhaps they didn’t know their children as well as they thought they did. The technological divide between the generations trumps that of social class with the kids largely living in an online world where the traditional prejudices are only magnified through teenage gossip. Rather than swapping notes like in the old days, they group chat during in lessons and reinforce social hierarchy through shame and bullying. Transfer student Qianmo quickly finds this out to her cost, becoming a target for the ruling group of popular girls after she declines to join their dance troupe, while the boys are determined to hit on her despite her obvious lack of interest. 

Qianmo was forced to give up dancing and leave her previous school which specialised in the arts because, it’s implied, her dance teacher was molesting her, yet she’s already been branded a “teenage slut” online for supposedly seducing him. The other girls are remarkably unsympathetic, engaging in sexualised bullying they proudly film and share amongst themselves. The boys are doing something similar, yet even though the point of these videos is that the kids share them widely to humiliate each other, they are never a part of the official investigation and the adults have no idea they exist. Qianmo is too afraid to report her bullying because she fears they’ll ask why it is she’s being bullied and then say it’s her own fault, while Chen who finds himself scapegoated after a homoerotic porn magazine is discovered in the dorm, simply fears reprisals. Questioned by the police the other kids all toe the line, afraid that they’ll become targets too for speaking the truth, all too happy to let Chen take the blame while allowing the awful status quo to continue but resentful that he will most likely wield his privilege to escape justice. 

Chen meanwhile blames himself, repeatedly asking if he’s the the cause of others’ suffering while Gangzi works out his frustrations with his abusive father and repressed sexuality through delinquency. Both mothers desperately try to save their sons, but find themselves struggling to comprehend the gap between the image they had of the young men their children were becoming and the unpleasant truths they are beginning to discover. Meanwhile, external bullying from a media mob further obfuscates the truth, baying for blood and creating only more victims in the process as it insists its brand of socially conservative, compassionless justice be served at all costs. Yet against the odds, the women eventually come to a kind of understanding, choosing to accept the reality while protecting other victims, refusing the “easy” option of a prepackaged “truth” that neatly fits the needs the needs of a bullying society. Ji’s hard-hitting debut too refuses easy answers, finding that in the cycle of violence and abuse perpetrators and victims are often one and the same but each subject to the same petty oppressions contributing to an atmosphere of rigid social conformity which breeds nothing but misery.


Victim(s) streamed as part of this year’s Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Edward (Thop Nazareno, 2019)

Maybe there’s no better place to learn about life and death than a hospital, but it’s a devastatingly cruel one in which to come of age in Thop Nazareno’s infinitely warm second feature Edward. A sharp condemnation of failing health policies with minor jabs to the political realities of the day, Edward finds its titular hero forced to grow up all too soon thanks to a confluence of personal tragedy, parental disappointment, and shattered dreams all of which are brought home to him as he begins to bond with his distant father while forced to care for him during his hospitalisation for an as yet undiagnosed respiratory complaint. 

Just a teenager, Edward (Louise Abuel) should probably be in school but he’s left his rural home to be with his father Mario (Dido de la Paz) at a hospital in Manila where he sleeps on the floor under his bed and is expected to provide care such as making sure he’s washed, changing sheets, and generally watching over him to be able to update the doctors on his condition. Technically speaking, Edward shouldn’t be taking on this responsibility, but his older half-brother Renato has had to leave and there are no other relatives available so the hospital has made an exception. As you might expect, he’s not as diligent as one might hope, especially as his relationship with his father is already strained, spending most of his time goofing off with another boy, Renz (Elijah Canlas), who is giving him a few life lessons of his own in drinking and weed while they help out running errands for the hospital staff. 

When we first meet the two boys they’re playing a grim game, taking bets on whether or not the emergency patients are going to make it. Nazareno opens with a long tracking shot following just one such casualty into the hospital, shifting chaotically from one bed to another while those in the crowded waiting area loudly call out for a doctor but are told only to wait their turn. Edward’s insensitivity bears out firstly how used he’s become to the liminal space of the hospital where death is never far away, but also his youth and impressionability, taken in as he is by Renz’ rather cool and cavalier approach to life. Later he bonds with a young woman, Agnes (Ella Cruz), herself an accident victim, who takes him to task for his callousness pointing out that she’s a real live human not the subject for a game, showing him it seems for the first time how inappropriate his behaviour has been. 

Though he knows very little about her aside from her name and that she seems to be around the same age, Edward enjoys spending time with the refreshingly direct young woman and comes to see it as something of a respite from being forced to care for his dad whom he is technically neglecting. We realise that Mario is perhaps not an easy man and the family network seems to have broken down, Renato declaring himself at the end of his tether and no longer prepared to care for a father who abandoned his family for another woman only to expect filial deference on becoming ill. Like Agnes, Edward is all alone but actively avoids looking forward, little realising that his father’s condition may be far more serious than they’d assumed, preferring to lose himself in the small absurdities of hospital life as if he were on a strange kind of holiday. 

Meanwhile, he discovers just how unequal and unfair the hospital system can be. During the chaotic opening we witness a congressman’s cook attempt to get bumped up the queue using his political clout while a boy bleeds out from gunshot wounds on a gurney behind reception. Mario’s original doctor leaves his position to move away, while the new one has his own private clinic and only works at the hospital on Tuesdays. Tests take three whole weeks to come back because they have to outsource and until then all they can do is guess and treat symptoms. While hanging out with Renz, Edward finds out about some decidedly dark and very untoward goings on at the hospital morgue which it perhaps doesn’t quite occur to him to feel disturbed by until much later.

For all that, Edward still hasn’t grasped that sometimes when they tell you you can go home, it’s not necessarily a good thing. Still, for the time that he’s there the hospital is a home. Mothered by overworked nurses and beginning to warm to his rather gruff father who only wants to talk to Renato (who doesn’t want to talk to him) while experiencing his first brush with romance, Edward comes of age staring death in the face. With its moody jazz score and wistful folk rock soundtrack, Thop Nazareno’s second feature doesn’t so much tug at the heart strings as play a merry tune with them, finding all the warmth there is in tragedy as Edward learns to navigate his hospital life towards its inevitable exit. 


Edward streamed as part of this year’s Udine Far East Film Festival.

Festival trailer (English subtitles)

A Beloved Wife (喜劇 愛妻物語, Shin Adachi, 2019)

Adapting his own autobiographical novel, screenwriter and director Shin Adachi claims that the events and characters of A Beloved Wife (喜劇 愛妻物語, Kigeki Aisai Monogatari) are exactly as they are in real life, only the film makes it all look better. Even if true, Adachi can’t be faulted for his honesty. His protagonist stand-in, Gota (Gaku Hamada), has almost no redeeming qualities, while his long-suffering wife receives little sympathy even while giving as good as she gets as a sake-guzzling harridan apparently ready to run her husband down at every opportunity, of which there are many, but Gota is quite simply useless. The Japanese title is careful to include the word “comedy” as a prefix, but this is humour of an extremely cruel variety. 

Married for 10 years with a small daughter, Gota’s chief preoccupation in his life seems to be that his wife, Chika (Asami Mizukawa), no longer finds him sexually desirable and they are rarely intimate. Rather than lament the distance in their marriage, all Gota does is go on a long, misogynistic rant about how he’d get a mistress or visit a sex worker only he has no money while complaining that he has to humiliate himself by helping out with the housework and childcare which he only does to curry favour in the hope that he will eventually be able to have sex with his wife. After some minor success as a screenwriter, his career is on the slide and he’s had no work in months, something which seems to damage his sense of masculinity and in his mind contributes to his wife’s animosity towards him.

He is right in one regard in that Chika is thoroughly fed up being forced to pick up the slack while he sits around watching VR porn, not writing or looking for a job but insisting that the next movie is always just round the corner. She’s tired and overworked, sick of penny pinching and resentful that she has to do everything herself, but it’s not so much the money that bothers her as Gota’s fecklessness while all he seems to care about is sex, meeting his own needs and no one else’s. Even when he takes his daughter, Aki (Chise Niitsu), to the park he ignores her to ogle other women, becoming embarrassed on running into a neighbour we later learn he slept with and then ghosted. He does the same thing again later on a beach, so busy sexting that he doesn’t see her wander off and is roundly chewed out by the lifeguard (an amusing cameo from director Hirobumi Watanabe, giving him the hard stare) who eventually finds her and brings her back. Not content with that, he rounds out the bad dad card by frequently bribing Aki with treats so she won’t spill the beans to her mum about his many questionable parental decisions. 

Really, we have to ask ourselves, why does Chika not leave him? The perspective we’re given is Gota’s and he appears not to understand that any of his behaviour is problematic, which might be why he seems genuinely shocked when Chika reaches the end of her tether and once again suggests divorce. He seems to think some of this at least is performative, part of the act of “marriage”, and she does indeed make a show of her frugality – insisting on sharing a 200 yen bowl of udon with her daughter to save money and climbing up a utility pole to sneak into a hotel after booking only a single occupancy room for the three of them, but is there more in her decision not to leave than habit? Gota seems to think so, especially on noticing her wearing the lucky red pants she bought back when they were young and in love and she believed in his potential. But then perhaps she really is just being economical.  

Nevertheless, she appears to keep supporting him, once again typing up his latest screenplay because he claims not to be able to use a word processor, and laughing off the rather more serious incident in which he is arrested after being discovered by a policeman molesting a drunk woman in the street. Adachi doesn’t appear to have very much to say in favour of the modern marriage, as if this one is no worse than any other (even a friend who married well (Kaho) badmouths her husband and giggles about a young lover), but Gota seems to have learned absolutely nothing even while declaring his love to his sleeping family and vowing to make a success of himself at last. It would be funny, if it weren’t so sad. 


A Beloved Wife is available to stream worldwide until July 4 as part of this year’s Udine Far East Film Festival.

Festival trailer (English subtitles)

Soul (Roh, Emir Ezwan, 2020)

“We’re now living in a dangerous time. Many people are desperate and feel unsafe” according to the beleaguered single-mother at the centre of Emir Ezwan’s slow burn folk horror Soul (Roh). The latest film produced by Malaysian powerhouse Kuman Pictures which specialises in low budget horror, Ezwan’s tale of supernatural dread situates itself in a world in which there is “always something evil around us” and existential threat may arrive in the most unexpected of forms. 

This a small family discovers to its cost when they come across a little girl (Putri Qaseh) wandering in the jungle and, as anyone would, take her into their home where they give her food and shelter while trying to find out where she’s come from and what might have happened to her. Unfortunately, however, after some ominous events, the girl tears apart one of their chickens and eats it raw before cursing them by issuing the prophecy that they will all be dead by the next full moon, thereafter slashing her own throat. The woman, Mak (Farah Ahmad), and her two children, daughter Along (Mhia Farhana) and son Angah (Harith Haziq), are obviously upset and afraid but have no idea what to do. They take the body further into the jungle and leave it there. After that more visitors arrive at their remote hut, a hunter with a spear and a milky eye (Namron), and a wise old woman, Tok (June Lojong), who always seems to be offering them advice only to remember that she has other important business to attend to before imparting it. 

Things only get worse for the woman and her children who, as far as we know, have done nothing wrong, only try to help a lost little girl. Living as they do on the edge of the forest, they are well acquainted with its duplicitous mysteries. “Never believe anything that you see or hear in the jungle” Mak cautions the children, scolding her hungry son who’d wanted to take a deer he and his sister found mysteriously hanging from a tree and bring it home to eat. Along fears a tiger, but logically someone put that deer there for a reason and might not be happy if someone walked off with it, though as far as the family knew they were the only ones nearby. Still they don’t seem to find anything odd in the sudden arrival of the old woman who tells them she’s come from across the river to gather herbs, warning them that there are bad vibes all round their house and something untoward is sure to befall them if they don’t take care. 

Caught between the wise woman and the vengeful man apparently hot on the trail of the little girl, the family has no idea who to believe or where to turn. The old woman tells Angah that he has no need to be afraid, evil is all around us but can only hurt through other humans which is why it’s better not to trust anyone. Yet supernatural threat is always lurking, waiting for an opportunity to strike. We have no power over you, it later confesses, all we had to do was whisper and you obeyed. Mak, alone with her children, is entirely cut off from the outside world. She has no idea what has happened in the village across the water, and no recourse to help outside of Tok and the power of prayer, something she is later accused of not having valued enough. She and her children are accidental bystanders in someone else’s spiritual battle, completely powerless and entirely at the mercy of those who selfishly pursue their own desires with little thought to the family’s lives. 

Ezwan conjures a deep atmosphere of existential dread as the darkness begins to seep out of the forest and engulf all around it. Mak warned the children that they shouldn’t go taking things out of the jungle, but despite the eerie superstitions of ghosts and ghost hunters she knew from her youth was all too easily tricked by something that walked out on its own and followed them home. There is darkness everywhere, and with darkness fire. “Your next life will be as eternal as your soul” the voice of darkness warns, make your choices wisely.


Soul is available to stream in Europe until July 4 as part of this year’s Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

I’m Really Good (わたしは元気, Hirobumi Watanabe, 2020)

Hirobumi Watanabe has made a name for himself as a purveyor of deadpan wit, often shooting in a stark black and white and casting himself as a sometimes irate monologuer inhabiting a world of silence. With I’m Really Good (わたしは元気, Watashi wa Genki), however, he for the most part stays behind the camera which he operates for himself for the first time in the absence of regular cinematographer Bang Woo-hyun, and subverts the conceits of Poolsideman to show us the innocent world of childhood, following an energetic little girl through one ordinary, though as it turns out, packed with small incident day. 

After opening with a colour sequence in which Riko (Riko Hisatsugu), a very energetic young girl, shoots an encouraging iPhone video, Watanabe returns to a more familiar black and white to find her playing with her best friend Nanaka (Nanaka Sudo), and then waking up to the sound of bird song ready for a brand new day. Like the hero of Poolsideman, she is constantly exposed to the radio news though, we can assume, she is not the one who put it on or actively listening to it. The central irony is that, where Poolsideman’s hero found himself driven in dangerous directions by reports of death, violence, and war, Riko is largely indifferent to the current pensions crisis which seems to be dominating the news. As a child, pensions are not something she is particularly worried about, though in a very real sense this will one day affect her especially in its implications for Japan’s rapidly ageing society as the discussion moves on to potential tax reform and ideas to combat a stagnating economy. In any case, Riko carries on playing happily with her friends, the news washing over her as perhaps it should. 

Meanwhile, her days are filled with ordinary things like walking to school with her brother and Nanaka, chatting about what’s for lunch and what they had for dinner, playing shiritori, and enjoying the pleasant rural landscape. In the evening they make the exact same journey in reverse, returning to their homes where they do their homework and wait patiently for their parents to return from their jobs to make dinner. On this particular day, two unusual events occur the first being she’s ended up with Nanaka’s homework book by mistake and needs to return it. The second is a visit from a strange man with the bizarre name of Kamekichi Jinguji (Hirobumi Watanabe) who claims to be from a company selling textbooks that will send even the dimmest of students to the top of the class. 

Luckily Riko is not duped by Kamekichi whose rather bizarre scam is undermined when she tells him her dad’s a policeman which sends him into a bit of a panic, but his presence does perhaps hark back to the pensions crisis as Riko finds herself targeted by a problem which is usually associated with the elderly in being doorstepped by a fraudulent salesman taking advantage of the fact she is currently without responsible adults with both parents out working. He tries the same thing with Nanaka who is almost taken in, but catches her just after Riko has arrived to give the book back, pausing only to remind the girls that they are the future and it’s their job to build a better Japan. Particularly ironic advice from a guy conning children out of their pocket money in exchange for phoney textbooks, not to mention somewhat unfair in projecting the responsibility for fixing a series of social problems like the pensions crisis into the future when it’s people like him who should be fixing them now to make the better world possible while little girls like Riko and Nanaka play happily enjoying a carefree childhood. 

To that matter, Riko’s childhood seems to be pretty carefree. She hangs out with Nanaka, plays football, enjoys the pleasant country environment and is surrounded by loving family even if sad that her policeman dad often works late and can’t join them for dinner while her older brother is forever playing video games at the table. The politicians on the news debate what standard of life is appropriate, trying to get out of their responsibilities by splitting hairs about the “model family”, but Riko carries on enjoying her ordinary days oblivious to the troubles of the world around her. “I’m really good!” she affirms in her introductory video after politely enquiring after the viewers’ health, and it’s as good a mission statement as you’re likely to find. 


I’m Really Good is available to stream worldwide until July 4 as part of this year’s Udine Far East Film Festival.

Festival trailer (English captions)

Cry (叫び声, Hirobumi Watanabe, 2019)

Hirobumi Watanabe has become closely associated with a particular brand of deadpan, black and white comedy, often casting himself in a prominent role as a motormouth monologuer. Cry (叫び声, Sakebigoe), however, returns him to the themes of 7 Days which proved divisive with critics following as it did the lowkey absurdist charms of And the Mud Ship Sails Away… Once again set in rural Tochigi, the (almost entirely) wordless Cry stars Watanabe this time as a pig farmer rather than cattleman and follows the crushing mundanity of his life over the course of an ordinary week. 

Replete with agricultural detail, Cry is at pains to dramatise the cyclical, rhythmic qualities of a life lived in tune with nature even as that of a pig farmer is in some ways perhaps in conflict with it in the cultivation and constraint of other living creatures. There is perhaps something rather ironic in recalling that Watanabe’s production company is called Foolish Piggies Films, and it’s all but impossible to ignore the odd kind of symmetry in the life of the farmer and his animals who are each in their own way imprisoned on either side of the bars. The major difference between them lies in crowding and solitude, cacophony and silence. Aside from the equally silent grandmother (sadly the final onscreen appearance of Watanabe’s own grandmother Misao Hirayama who sadly passed away last year and had been a constant fixture in each of the director’s films to date) with whom he lives, the farmer has no other human contact, indeed his only “social” outlet is a solo trip to the cinema where he is the sole spectator and the only other person with whom he interacts is the usher who says nothing more than “enjoy the movie”. 

We can infer that the farmer goes to the pictures every Sunday at around the same time after seeing to the pigs, that he likely does so alone, and that this is a fixed part of his weekly routine. On a weekday, we see him rise, eat breakfast with his grandmother, muck out the pigs and break for lunch, usually taking a moment of rest on windswept rooftop under an incongruous electricity pylon as if to signal the encroachment of modernity on his simple life, or in event of rain returning home to read the paper. In the evenings he reads by the light of a small lamp and writes in a diary. Sunday aside, his days are almost identical yet, unlike the heroes of other Watanabe films who often comically walk the exact same routes they came by only in reverse, he seems to vary his path, making the surprisingly long journey between his home and the pens a little less predictable than the other areas of his life. 

The “cry” of the title might express this desire for an interruption to the maddening mundanity of his existence, but otherwise the farmer does not appear to be particularly unhappy with the simplicity of his life save for the intense drumming of the taiko score which accompanies him as he walks along the quiet country paths towards the pens as if he were heading to a battlefield which, in a way, he perhaps is as he engages in the paradoxical task of caring for animals he will one day surrender for slaughter and in fact consume.

He does not seem to be withholding a wail of existential despair, merely living an ordinary life in ordinary ways. Even on his trip to the cinema, he appears to be watching, until he falls asleep, footage from Watanabe’s own I’m Really Good (a poster for And the Mud Ship Sails Away… also sits in the foyer) in which farmland kids walk the same paths he walks but entertain themselves with games of shiritori which is generally much less fun to play on your own even if not exactly impossible. At home he cares patiently for his grandmother, diligently cleaning her dentures, again another part of his routine, while bathing in the calming silence free of the noisy cacophony of the pig pens and of the roar of the wind which sweeps the rooftop. His life may be simple, but perhaps no less repetitive than that of many others and with its own small joys even in its mundanity. 


Cry is available to stream worldwide until July 4 as part of this year’s Udine Far East Film Festival.

Festival trailer (English captions)

Life Finds a Way (普通は走り出す, Hirobumi Watanabe, 2018)

Hirobumi Watanabe goes full 8 1/2 with the decidedly meta comedy, Life Finds a Way (普通は走り出す, Futsu wa Hashiridasu). After the joyful celebration of Party ‘Round the Globe, he returns in a noticeably self-reflective mood once again playing a version of himself as a self-involved, childish blocked filmmaker who fears he is falling out of love with film. Unable to come up with ideas, he fobs off producers and ignores phone calls while hanging out with grandma (Misao Hirayama) and making a nuisance of himself at the library but a mini-nervous breakdown and a reconnection with the film-loving little boy he once was perhaps offer him new direction though the jury’s out on whether “Hirobumi” is ever going to grow up. 

Once again locating itself in peaceful Tochigi and shot in crisp black and white with Watanabe’s trademark deadpan static camera, Life Finds a Way opens with Hirobumi fielding a phone call from a producer in which he confesses that he’s supposed to be working on a script created in collaboration with rock band Triple Fire but he’s getting nowhere so he’s hanging out in a cafe to “relax” while playing Dragon Quest. Later he rings his cinematographer, Bang Woohyun, and makes a similar apology, admitting that he’s going to take some time off to watch the World Cup because, after all, it’s a once in every four years opportunity. Meanwhile, he’s mostly snoozing at home with grandma, or driving around with his almost entirely silent and extremely patient strawberry farmer friend Kurosaki (Kurosaki Takanori). 

One of his early rants offered as a monologue to Kurosaki who seems to be used to them, revolves around his sense of inferiority as a creative unfairly maligned as a lazy good-for-nothing by workaholic Japanese society. In Japan, he says, we worship the worker ant who survives because he works away earnestly, while in France they honour the grasshopper because his beautiful music can cheer you up even in the depths of winter. Hirobumi thinks the French have it right, that Japanese people are too obsessed with doing everything “properly”, always worrying about trivial things. According to him, there are far too many worker ant types in the Japanese film industry. He thinks films should be free and unconstrained, not bound by some kind of ideal. 

In any case, while being quite rude to “worker ant” Kurosaki who labours all day long on his strawberry farm, Hirobumi blames all his problems on having been unlucky enough to have been born in Japan rather than somewhere like France where they appreciate people like him. Later, he interviews a few locals and asks them what they think is the problem with the Japanese film industry, only for Kurosaki to repeatedly answer “it’s Hirobumi”, perhaps getting his own back. In fact, Kurosaki, apparently meaning well, shows Hirobumi a piece about of one of his films in a glossy magazine only it’s uncomplimentary in the extreme which sends him into a rage, ranting furiously about ungrateful audiences and how much he hates film critics. Hirobumi seemingly blames everyone but himself for his faults and failures, climbing all the way up to a hilltop shrine to pray that he wins the Palme d’Or while also asking that the gods not give good jobs to successful directors but give them all to him instead, and for bad things to happen to someone who sent him a strongly worded letter. 

Hirobumi’s “fan mail” appears to be from a stuffy old woman who states that she has “kindly” written to him several times already to explain that his work is an insult to cinema yet he keeps “selfishly” making films. She’d liked to have told him this in person, but was apparently “too busy” so has written another letter urging him to reflect on his life choices and either make “good” films like Koreeda and Miyazaki, or find himself another career. Hirobumi wonders what the point of films is if they don’t make people happy or have the capacity to change the world. Asked what films meant to them most of his interview subjects either had no answer or regarded them only as entertainment. An encounter with himself perhaps reminds him what it was he saw in cinema and allows hims him to begin moving forward creatively. 

But even having finished his script, has Hirobumi really changed? He seems permanently to be surrounded by children, hanging out reading the manga in the kids’ section of the library, lining up behind a string of obedient primary school students to check out his DVDs where he sets a bad example by having a series of Tora-san movies already overdue but using grandma’s card to take out more, and hanging out with his niece catching crayfish in the local stream with a bucket and net just like he must have done since he was little. He lies about missing the World Cup, ignores phone calls from the library to snooze while spending time with grandma, and is not really any nicer to the patient Kurosaki than he was before. But life finds its way, Hirobumi escapes his creative malaise by rediscovering the joy of cinema, healing himself body and soul, and feeling more positive about the future even if nothing has really changed. 


Life Finds a Way is available to stream worldwide until July 4 as part of this year’s Udine Far East Film Festival. It was also scheduled to screen as part of the 10th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Festival Trailer (English captions)

Original trailer (no subtitles)