Hail, Driver! (Prebet Sapu, Muzzamer Rahman, 2021)

“Big city, small people, tough life” a jaded sex worker commiserates, slowly bonding with an illegal taxi driver trying to find a way to live in contemporary Kuala Lumpur. The ironically titled Hail, Driver! (Prebet Sapu) casts its cosmically unlucky hero adrift, literally roaming the city and coming in a sense to a new understanding of it thanks to his impromptu conversations with fares many of whom are only slightly more lucky than he is. Yet while his radio constantly updates him on the upcoming elections, he struggles to believe that real change is possible or that he will ever find a way out of his itinerant poverty. 

Aman (Amerul Affendi) was once a writer, but times have changed and no one buys magazines anymore. He’s been living with his sister in the city, but his brother-in-law makes no secret of his unhappiness with the situation, arguing with his wife about Aman’s inability to contribute economically to the household. Hoping to make some extra cash, he decides to make use of his sole inheritance from his late father, a rundown but reliable and recently serviced vehicle, to become a driver with ride hailing app Toompang. The only problem is that Aman has no official driver’s licence and is unable to get one because of his colour blindness, while the car is technically not of a sufficient standard to be used as a taxi. Paying a middle man for fake documents, he begins working but is quickly made homeless when his brother-in-law changes the locks while he’s out one day and announces he’s bringing his own brother to live with him instead forcing Aman to make the car his home, using public conveniences to wash and occasionally sleeping in 24-hr establishments such as laundromats. 

Aman’s plight is an encapsulation of the problems of the modern city, the radio explaining that house prices are a major point of interest in the upcoming elections. He searches for affordable accommodation but finds nothing suitable while quizzing his various fares about their living conditions, whether they rent or own their homes and how much they pay. One woman with a young son explains that of course she rents, there’s no way she could buy on her low salary while starting a business of her own is, she claims somewhat crassly, a no go because of the “flock of immigrants” in the city. Another of Aman’s fares reveals he came from Bangladesh some years ago, works in a hotel, and shares a reasonably priced apartment with his brother. Meanwhile Aman ferries sleazy politicians and their much younger mistresses to just such establishments. 

It’s his innate kindness, however, which eventually allows him to move forward after accidentally bonding with Chinese-Malaysian sex worker Bella (Lim Mei Fen) who came to the capital from Penang in search of a better future. She offers to let him use her spare room in return for his services getting to and from her clients, but even as they begin to develop a kind of mutual solidarity Bella confesses that she’s never felt a sense of belonging in the capital while her abandonment issues, her mother apparently living in the US after leaving her behind at five years old, have left her feeling spiritually homeless. “Not all dreams can be achieved” she advises Aman, each of them united in a sense of defeat as they reflect that nothing ever changes hearing the news that the party in power has again won the elections despite the ongoing problems in the city. 

Filmed in a crisp black and white, reflecting both Aman’s colour blindness and sense of hopelessness, Hail, Driver! paints an unflattering portrait of life on the margins of a burgeoning metropolis but eventually finds a degree of possibility in the unexpected, perhaps in its way transgressive, connection between the Malay taxi driver and Chinese sex worker who eventually find a sense of belonging, of home, in each other even as they bond over shattered dreams and urban disappointment. A striking debut feature Muzzamer Rahman’s empathetic drama captures the elusive city in all its unobtainable beauty, apartment blocks literally towering oppressively over the kindhearted Aman, but finally suggests that freedom may lie only outside of its repressive borders. 


Hail Driver! streamed as part of this year’s hybrid edition Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Death Knot (Tali mati, Cornelio Sunny, 2021)

Orphaned siblings attempt to process the dark legacy of the superstitious past in the debut feature directed by and starring actor Cornelio Sunny, Death Knot (Tali mati). Travelling from the comforting sophistication of the modern city back into the eerie darkness of the ancient forest, the pair find themselves confronted first by a filial dilemma and then a spiritual conundrum in their potential destiny which their possibly shamaness mother may have gone to great lengths in order to prevent. 

As the film opens, Hari (Cornelio Sunny) texts with his younger sister Eka (Widika Sidmore) who somewhat sexistly tells him not to stay single too long because he needs someone to cook for him. Falling asleep watching a program in which a woman remarks on the presence of jinns as manifestations of energy that can’t be seen by the naked eye, Hari has a strange dream in which he witnesses his mother hanging herself in the forest in the middle of the night uttering only the words “stay away”. As it turns out, Eka had exactly the same dream and a phone call from their estranged uncle who rather bluntly tells them that their mother is dead and as the villagers won’t have anything to do with her they need to come for the funeral, confirms their worst fears. Ignoring the warning in the dream, Hari, Eka, and her husband Adi (Morgan Oey) drive back to their home village but quickly find themselves out of their depth trying to figure out what’s going on. 

The first clue is the reaction from a previously friendly old woman who suddenly gets up and walks off after exclaiming that the body should have been burned not buried when Hari stops to ask for directions. The second clue is that only three people including their uncle turn up for the funeral. The third clue is that everyone keeps telling them to leave town right away while the fourth is that they can’t because of a mysterious storm that has apparently closed all the roads. Meanwhile, hostile uncle Rahmen immediately asks for what seems like a lot of money to cover his expenses for the clandestine funeral and then wastes no time staking his claim to their mother’s house. Though neither of the siblings want it, the request offends Hari who feels guilty that he never really got to know his mother and is wary of abandoning the last traces of her in the house she once owned. 

Described by Adi as creepy, the house does however have a dark legacy, the pair already aware that their father left and took them to the city because of their mother’s strange behaviour that saw her ostracised by the other villagers who suspected her of being a shamaness responsible for a strange phenomenon known as “The Harvest” in which spates of suicides take place across a specific month. Hari tries to rationalise it away, pointing out that it’s hard to live in rural poverty and putting a label on unexplained deaths is easier than admitting that people are taking their own lives because of economic precarity and an ongoing sense of despair, but with the increasing strangeness all around him he has to admit a degree of spiritual unease in this fiercely traditional world he is ill-equipped to understand. 

Rather than hauntings and jump scares, Cornelio Sunny concentrates on conjuring an atmosphere of supernatural dread in which anyone may suddenly become a grinning demon, performing strange ritualistic dance and odd movements only to suddenly disappear from view. An educated man from the city, Hari quickly becomes fed up with talk of ancestral deities, pacts with the devil, and black magic, only latterly accepting his role within an arcane system and understanding that his mother’s distance may have been her way of protecting him which has in the end backfired. Yet having destroyed the symbol of this spiritual oppression, Hari discovers that there may be no escape from its darkening legacy or the atavistic superstitions of the villagers, an ominous cloud always hanging over him even as he faces the final choice of whether to continue fighting or accept the inevitable. Proceeding with moody inevitability, the ironically titled Death Knot ensnares its confused hero in a tightening noose of spiritual dread and filial guilt before cutting him adrift a victim of his own sophistication. 


Death Knot streamed as part of this year’s hybrid edition Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Like Father and Son (拨浪鼓咚咚响, Bai Zhiqiang, 2020)

A grieving father and orphaned little boy eventually find mutual solidarity in an increasingly duplicitous society in Bai Zhiqiang’s warmhearted road movie, Like Father and Son (拨浪鼓咚咚响, Bōlànggǔ Dōngdōng Xiǎng). Travelling the modern China in search of the boy’s missing father, the pair encounter only greed and selfishness but discover perhaps something in each other that repairs their sense of despair as they bond in their shared sense of loneliness, each in their own way “left behind” and looking for someone who’ll look for them. 

Pedlar Guoren (Hui Wangjun) makes a living transporting goods from the cities and selling everyday items to customers in remote villages, even running a digital portrait service for those without access to photographic equipment most of which seem to get used for funerals. It’s in one such village that he first encounters little Madou (Bai Zeze), a “left behind child” raised by his grandmother but rejected by the other kids and longing for his absent father to return. Having overheard Guoren mention that he’s headed to the town where he believes his father is working, Madou tries to catch up to him in the hope of giving him his school report to show his dad so he’ll come back but is unsuccessful. When his grandmother suddenly passes away leaving him all alone, the other villagers seemingly rejecting him, Madou decides to take drastic action stowing away in the back of Guoren’s van only to be discovered after accidentally setting off a box of firecrackers and setting fire to half of Guoren’s stock. Though reluctant, Guoren ends up agreeing to take the boy to find his father in the hope of gaining compensation for his lost merchandise while half suspecting that Madou’s dad may have already moved on. 

Embittered and cynical, Guoren is consumed by grief for his young son who passed away of an illness, displacing his hurt by channeling his pain into anger towards an old friend who he believes cheated him out of money he could have used to pay for additional medical treatment. Perhaps for these reasons he has ambivalent feelings for Madou, at times despite himself sorry for him but also fed up, irritated to have been saddled with his boy when so cruelly robbed of his own. He doesn’t really mean it, but Guoren often cynically suggests selling Madou into China’s child trafficking network if he can’t get someone to accept responsibility for him by paying compensation for all stock that he destroyed.

The frequent, if sarcastic, references to child trafficking are only one example of the ills that plague the modern society. During their journey, the pair find themselves stuck in the mud and despite working together are unable to free the truck only for a passing motorist to stop and offer to help but only for a small fee. Stopping off in a small town, Guoren allows another shop owner to “borrow” Madou for a short period only to discover him being forced to beg in the street with all the money going straight into the shopkeeper’s pocket. Migrant workers they question looking for Madou’s father soon descend into a mass argument about unpaid debts and who owes who, while other labourers hold up cardboard signs featuring their skills in the hope of being hired by passing vans.  

Madou is himself a “left behind child” one of many in modern China raised by grandparents in the country while the parents work in the cities to provide for them. Lonely, Madou longs for his father and blames himself for his continual absence. Guoren meanwhile also blames himself for the death of his son but vows revenge on his friend in order to avoid facing the pain of his grief. They are each in a sense left behind, little Madou breaking down in despair in the realisation that he is entirely alone, that he has no more family and nobody wants him while Guoren clings fiercely to the memory of his son. Awkwardly bonding as they travel, Madou picking up a talent for market selling, the pair eventually develop a sense of connection that begins to heal their familial wounds, Gouren discovering a surrogate son while Madou finds the father figure he’d been looking for. A warmhearted yet also melancholy tale of intergenerational bonding Bai Zhiqiang’s gentle familial drama may find itself in an increasingly greedy and self-interested society but eventually allows a ray of hope in the genuine connection between the orphaned boy and grieving father.  


Like Father and Son streamed as part of this year’s hybrid edition Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Son of the Macho Dancer (Anak ng macho dancer, Joel Lamangan, 2021)

“How many have you buried? Why?!” asks the hero of Joel Lamangan’s Son of the Macho Dancer (Anak ng macho dancer), a quasi sequel to the 1988 Lino Brocka classic. Set during the early days of the pandemic, Lamangan’s salty drama hints at the radiating effects of an authoritarian culture for those living on the margins of the contemporary society but does so with a dose of trashy telenovela camp in its eventually redemptive tale of frustrated futures, sexual exploitation, drugs and murder in a time of increasing sickness. 

19-year-old Inno (Sean De Guzman) is in a casual relationship with a woman whose tendency to refer to herself as his girlfriend clearly irritates him, especially as their sex life seems to be frustrated by her fear of his apparently giant penis. When his father Pol (Allan Paule) who has become addicted to drugs after a car accident is arrested by the police and he needs money to bail him out, Inno’s mother (Rosanna Roces) seizes on his oversize appendage as a means of saving the family by dragging him straight to a local gay club to become a go-go dancer. While reluctant at first, Inno soon takes to his new life and decides to milk it for all its worth, latching on to VIP procurer Bambi (Jaclyn Jose) and her sidekick Roldan (Emilio Garcia) in the hope of being invited to one of their elite parties all of which later drags him into the orbit of sadistic gay drug dealer Jun (Jay Manalo). 

All the while, we see Duterte on TV giving updates in the corona virus crisis and the various measures to mitigate it which threaten the survival of gay bar Mankind as well as the illicit business enterprises operated by Jun, Bambi, and Roldan. A police officer reconfirms his warning to drug dealers that they shouldn’t expect an easy ride during the pandemic because they will “destroy all of you”. The police force is shown to be resolutely corrupt, firstly in its refusal to investigate the causes of the car crash which caused Pol’s descent into addiction because, he believes, the driver was a judge and the cops have been paid off, and lastly in its complicity with criminal activity as evidenced in their cooperation with Roldan to cover up his crimes. 

Obsessed with social media clout, Inno constantly documents and uploads his existence online marvelling at his new circumstances as a kept man of Jun only latterly reflecting on the ironies of his life in discovering that his father was once also a “macho dancer” while his mother was forced to turn to sex work to feed the family after Pol’s accident. Seduced by the lifestyle of the rich and powerful that Jun can give him he doesn’t stop to consider its wider implications even when warned by predecessor Kyle (Ricky Gumera) of the dangerously oppressive regime within the house. It’s not until he finds himself burying the body of a friend murdered by Jun after unwittingly failing to play along with his voyeuristic sexual fantasies that he begins to ask why, not only why he’s living this life but why Bambi has been living it all this time enabling Jun’s predatory violence in burying the bodies of unlucky young men who fell foul of his sadistic desires. 

For Kyle at least the answer may be a lifetime of violent abuse which which has left him too traumatised to believe escape is possible. Inno vacillates between resentment towards his father for his irresponsible drug use and mistreatment of his long-suffering mother, and the filial desire to protect him which led him to become a macho dancer in the first place. Bambi and Pol, meanwhile, the heroes of Brocka’s film have been consistently brutalised by an oppressive society apparently only awakened to the possibility of changing course by Inno’s corrective questioning. 

In any case, there’s a minor irony even in the wilful subversion of positioning the young hero as a sex object valued only for the size of his penis while the frequent full frontal male nudity often feels gratuitous and the final swing towards heteronormativity can’t help but align homosexuality with the psychopathic cruelty of Jun as something dark and perverse even while ending on a joyous if tempered moment of resilience in returning to Mankind with the house full of masked clubbers continuing to shove their notes into the dancers’ briefs. Though the final resolution may in a sense be too neat, a family restoring or remaking itself in the wake of trauma, Lamangan allows the sense of unease to continue in the callback to societal corruption as the ongoing pandemic seems to stand in for other kinds of increasing sickness. 


Son of the Macho Dancer streams worldwide until 2nd July as part of this year’s hybrid edition Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Sugar Street Studio (糖街製片廠, Sunny Lau, 2021)

“People have always been scarier than ghosts” according to the hero of Sunny Lau’s retro horror comedy, Sugar Street Studio (糖街製片廠). He is not in a sense wrong, the gang of down on their luck filmmakers unexpectedly uncovering a minor historical injustice while operating an “authentic” haunted house, and while the ghosts may be scary they are merely attempting to connect and right an old wrong. Filled with cynical humour, Lau’s witty screenplay is often disparaging of the contemporary Hong Kong film industry and an increasingly cutthroat society but finds unexpected pathos in the romantic tragedy at its centre. 

As the film opens, fast talking producer Pierre (Matt Chow Hoi-Kwong) has been hauled in front of mob boss Choi (Eric Kot Man-fai) who wants to know what the holdup is on their mutual film project. Boss Choi meanwhile has another problem in that the hotpot restaurant he’s just bought isn’t doing so well owing to the place being haunted. Ever enterprising Pierre comes up with a new idea: opening an “authentic” haunted house on the same site featuring real ghosts while shooting a movie in the same location. Getting the green light, Pierre enlists prosthetics guy Gary (Yatho Wong) to design the interiors for a horror show inspired by the real life studio fire of 30-years previously supposedly started by a clown in resentment after being turned down by the leading lady. 

Hoping to get more information, the guys talk to surviving actor Uncle Cheong (Chan Kwok-pong) who spins them a tale of his own heroism, claiming that he tried to intervene when the clown attacked his girlfriend and co-star but had to step out only to return after getting a pager message about the fire and attempt to save what lives he could. Perhaps unexpectedly, Cheong is all for their haunted house endeavour even making an appearance on opening night, but the gang can’t help but feel there must be more to this strange tale of arson and revenge. 

Mildmannered in the extreme, Gary finds himself conflicted in running Pierre’s unusual enterprise, wondering if it’s corrupting him or then again “Maybe to survive in Hong Kong, being mean is a basic necessity”. “Conning people diligently in Hong Kong is the path to success”, according to his friend even as they ironically prepare to open their “authentic” haunted house where encounters with “real” ghosts quickly find an audience who believe screaming in supernatural terror has therapeutic effects that can ease the depression and anxiety they feel as young people in contemporary Hong Kong. 

Pierre sells the haunted house idea partly on the strength that no one makes horror movies anymore because, famously, you can’t sell them on the Mainland and so co-productions aren’t interested. He describes Gary as the “tumour that’s killing the Hong Kong film industry” while constantly talking a big game, like a stereotypical producer willing to say everything and everything in order to get ahead, even hobnobbing with triads. “Hong Kong Cinema is all about discipline” he ironically claims despite being massively behind on all his projects, giving Gary a dressing down for being a few days late with his designs. 

“Some things don’t need to be completely understood” a zany medium claims, somewhat duplicitously, but it’s not until their own encounter with the ghost that the gang start to pick up on the dark legacy of the studio fire making use, possibly, of an unfair prejudice against clowns to sell the idea of a madman killer driven insane by lust and resentment towards a woman who had rejected him. What they discover is a sad tale of frustrated love, wounded male ego, and bitter regret that has perhaps manifested itself as a deeply held grudge as the guilty party holds on to their guilt and shame despite themselves. “It’s never too late to turn back” the villain is cautioned by a now elderly shaman, but in some ways it is, especially if you’ve already donned the clown suit of vicarious violence, “all debts must be paid”.  

Making the most of its whimsical premise, the increasingly surreal tale doesn’t skimp on the horror imagery with its scarred ghosts and scary clowns but also harks back to the horror comedies of old with its sutras and seals as the gang attempt to solve the mystery and right a historical injustice. Filled with amusing meta references to the contemporary Hong Kong film industry, ironic satire, and absurdist gags Lau’s charmingly off the wall comedy has only sympathy for its lovelorn ghosts of a bygone era and the hapless film crew attempting to navigate the vagaries of an often absurd industry.


Sugar Street Studio streams worldwide until 2nd July as part of this year’s hybrid edition Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

One Second Champion (一秒拳王, Chiu Sin-Hang, 2020)

“All things in their being are good for something” little Yan is told by a sympathetic TV presenter slightly unconvinced by his short-lived celebrity as the “One Second Wonder”. It may not sound like the most complimentary nickname, but in this case it’s intended in the kindest sense referring to the kid’s uncanny ability to see into the future if only for one second. As a child he’d told the TV audience that he wanted to grow up and find a way to use his superpower to contribute to society, but now a dejected middle-aged man the hero of Chiu Sin-Hang’s One Second Champion (一秒拳王) is something of a loser, imbued with a sense of defeat and not quite so much trading on past glory as using his “superpower” as a party trick to earn extra cash. 

As he tells us, Yan (Endy Chow Kwok-yin) was born during a storm, a power cut threatening his new life and leaving him apparently dead for one second to which he attributes the cause of his strange ability. All things considered, however, being able to see one second ahead is almost useless. What good is it to predict the winning lottery numbers or the winner of a horse race if you’ve no time to buy a ticket or place a bet? A nerdy sort of child unfairly thrust into the spotlight as the “One Second Wonder”, Yan has become a defeated middle-aged man working in the bar of an old friend while trying to pay off gambling debts accrued trying to raise the money for an operation for his son, Chi-leung (Hung Cheuk Lok), who is deaf. His total lack of self-esteem is rammed home when Chi-leung points out a classmate who’s been bullying him, often ripping out and damaging his hearing aid. Though Yan vows to talk to the school and the boy’s parents to sort it out, he quickly backs own even trying to force Chi-leung to apologise to the bully in front of his equally intimidating mum. 

The one arena where seeing one second ahead may in fact be valuable is in the middle of a fight which is what brings him to the attention of aspiring boxer Shun (Chiu Sin-hang). Faced with esteem issues of his own, Shun struggles in the ring partly due to his asthma and partly ongoing anxiety as a result of trauma having seen his dad behaving strangely after a fight. Aside from personal success, his desire is to resurrect his dad’s old gym, eventually teaming up with Yan after hearing of his strange ability and hoping his success might help attract more members. In this positive environment, Yan starts to regain a sense of confidence, getting a smart new haircut and paying more attention to personal grooming, while impressing his young son with his unexpected success not to mention reflecting that his “useless” ability might not be so useless after all. 

But then, after a traumatic incident he fears his special powers may be gone and is faced with another choice in whether to continue boxing as a “real” boxer or go back to the defeated life he used to live. Boxing shouldn’t be about gimmicks, according to a young pretty boy star (Chanon Santinatornkul) with an ironic, if sometimes cruel, devotion to the craft marketed like an idol by his ambitious manager, but Yan has to wonder if there’s more to him than the “One Second Wonder”. The conclusion that he comes to is that, as the TV presenter had said, everything’s good for something, one second can make a huge difference, and every choice you make counts. Win or lose, what matters is making the most of your time so why wait when you could start right away. A soulful tale of self-acceptance, the power of mutual solidarity, and the restorative qualities of physical discipline, Chiu Sin-Hang’s warmhearted drama is an ode to forging your own destiny, one second at a time, while remaining true to yourself. “Our superpower is never giving up” Yan tells his young son, no longer so afraid of the sound of his own heart beating, as they walk off into the sunset One Second Champions win or lose. 


One Second Champion streams worldwide (excl. China/Spain/Canada) until 2nd July as part of this year’s hybrid edition Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English / Traditional Chinese subtitles)

Hand Rolled Cigarette (手捲煙, Chan Kin-long, 2020)

A former serviceman turned triad middleman bonds with a similarly oppressed South Asian petty criminal in Chan Kin-long’s noirish crime drama Hand Rolled Cigarette (手捲煙). An unexpected awards contender, the first directorial effort from actor Chan aligns its disparate heroes as two men in a sense betrayed by the world in which they live, one longing for a way out and the other too convinced he no longer deserves one to continue looking. 

“Let’s start over” Chiu (Gordon Lam Ka-tung) philosophically muses over a cigarette contemplating the coming handover. As a brief title card explains, when the British Army pulled out of Hong Kong, it hung its local recruits out to dry, disbanding their units and leaving them entirely without support. 25 years later, Chiu has become a dejected triad middleman, as we first meet him setting up a dubious deal for smuggled turtles between Taiwanese mobster Pickle (To Yin-gor) and local top dog Boss Tai (Ben Yuen). On his way back to his flat in Chungking Mansions, Chiu literally runs into a South Asian man apparently in the middle of a drug deal. Kapil (Bitto Singh Hartihan) dreams of bigger prizes, listening to the stock market report on the morning news and musing about robbing a bank. His cousin Mani (Bipin Karma), more conflicted in their criminal activities, cautions him against it reminding him that they already face discrimination and don’t need to add to their precarious position by giving their ethnicity a bad name. “If we have money people can’t look down on us” Kapil counters, seemingly desperate to escape his difficult circumstances by any means possible which eventually leads him to make the incredibly bad decision to cheat local triads out of their drug supply. Leaving Mani and his schoolboy brother Mansu (Anees) alone to carry the can (literally), Kapil takes off while Mani finds himself crawling into Chiu’s flat for refuge when chased by Boss Tai’s chief goon Chook (Michael Ning). Unwilling at first, Chiu agrees to let Mani stay, for a price, only to find himself falling ever deeper into a grim nexus of underworld drama. 

Chiu’s plight as a former British serviceman makes him in a sense an exile in his own land, a displaced soul free floating without clear direction unable to move on from the colonial past. We later learn that he is in a sense attempting to atone for a karmic debt relating to the death of a friend during the Asian financial crisis, also beginning in 1997, of which he was a double victim. Most of his old army buddies have moved on and found new ways of living, some of them rejecting him for his role in their friend’s death and tendency to get himself into trouble while Chiu can only descend further into nihilistic self-loathing in his self-destructive triad-adjacent lifestyle. 

Mani, by contrast, did not approve of his cousin’s criminality, particularly resenting him for using Mansu’s schoolbag as a means of shifting drugs. He dreams of a better life but sees few other options for himself, hoping at least to send Mansu to university and ensure he doesn’t share the same fate. Chiu continues to refer to him solely by a racial slur, but simultaneously intervenes in the marketplace when Chook and his guys hassle another South Asian guy insisting that they’re all locals and therefore all his “homies”, despite himself warming to the young man and even going so far as to sort out child care for Mansu otherwise left on his own. “Harmony brings wealth” Boss Tai ironically exclaims, but harmony is it seems hard to come by, Chiu’s sometime Mainland girlfriend expressing a desire to return because the city is not as she assumed it would be while little Mansu is constantly getting in fights because the other kids won’t play with him. 

“There’s always a way out. I’ll start over” Chiu again tells Mani, though he seems unconvinced. Clearing his debts karmic and otherwise, Chiu discovers only more emptiness and futility while perhaps redeeming himself in rebelling against the world of infinite corruption that proved so difficult to escape. A moody social drama with noir flourishes, Chan’s fatalistic crime story is one of national betrayals culminating in a highly stylised, unusually brutal action finale partially set in the green-tinted hellscape of a gangster’s illegal operating theatre. Men like Chiu, it seems, may not be able to survive in the new Hong Kong but then perhaps few can. 


Hand Rolled Cigarette streams in Europe until 2nd July as part of this year’s hybrid edition Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English / Traditional Chinese subtitles)

Limbo (智齒, Soi Cheang, 2021)

“I forgive you. Please live well”, a final message from the dying to one attempting to survive the junkyard hellscape of contemporary Hong Kong. Soi Cheang’s stylish thriller Limbo (智齒), shot in a high contrast monochrome lending the city state the rain-soaked aesthetic of cyberpunk noir, is in many senses a purgatorial odyssey as its pregnant title implies sending its duo of morally compromised cops into a world of the dispossessed inhabited by those “thrown away” by their society and thereafter left to rot among the detritus of an uncaring city. 

Hong Kong’s homeless may occupy a liminal space, trapped in an inescapable limbo, but it’s grizzled cop Cham (Gordon Lam Ka-tung) who is the most arrested, unable to move on from the accident which left his pregnant wife suspended in a coma. To escape his own sense of purgatorial inertia, he seeks closure in chasing down petty criminal Wong To (Cya Liu) whom he holds responsible for his fate on discovering she has been granted early parole for good behaviour. As fate would have it, Wong To’s release back into the underworld (after all, where else was she to go?) has unexpected connection to the case Cham is currently investigating in the mysterious appearance of random severed hands each belonging to “social outcasts”, as Cham’s slick rookie partner puts it, they fear may hint at the existence of a serial killer growing in confidence. 

Adapted from a novel by Lei Mi, the film’s Chinese title is simply “Wisdom Tooth”, a tongue in cheek reference to the ongoing toothache which places cop two Will Ren (Mason Lee) in his own kind of purgatorial pain, the offending molar eventually knocked out during his climactic fight with the killer during which he will in a sense transgress, passing from innocence to experience in gaining the wisdom that police work’s not as black and white as he may have believed it to be. “Cops are human too” his boss reminds him as he takes the controversial step of reporting his new partner for inappropriate use of force while pursuing a personal vendetta not exactly connected with his current case. He doesn’t disagree, but points out that police officers have guns and are supposed to uphold the law, not abuse their authority and take it into their own hands. 

But then, who is really responsible for the junkyards of the modern city and their ever increasing denizens abandoned by a society which chooses to discard them along with all their other “rubbish”, little different from the dismembered mannequins which people the killer’s eerie lair. Soi frequently cuts back to scenes of the dispossessed often looking stunned or vacant as they sit on mattresses or abandoned sofas surrounded by the pregnant disrepair of a city in the midst of remaking itself as if they were sitting on skin in the process of being shed by a slow moving snake. It would be tempting to assume the killer has a vendetta against “social outcasts”, his victims sex workers, drug users, and criminals though in truth these people are simply the most vulnerable even if there is no clear motive provided for the crimes save a minor maternal fixation and possible religious mania. A drug dealer ensnared by Cham’s net remains loyal to the killer, “We’re not as crazy as you. We are rubbish, so what? In this world, he’s the only one who cares.” she tells him, unwilling to give up her one source of connection even while aware of her constant proximity to death and violence. 

Cast into this world, Wong To too is trapped in an individual purgatory longing for forgiveness for her role in the death of Cham’s wife, a forgiveness he cruelly denies her even while making use of her desperation to force her to risk her life for him in betraying her underworld contacts to edge towards the killer. “Why are you treating me like this?” she asks, “I don’t want to die”, well aware that denied his direct vengeance by Will Cham is attempting to kill her by proxy. Wong To keeps running, keeps fighting, refuses to give up while seeking atonement and an escape from this broken world of violence and decay. It is she who eventually holds the key to an escape from purgatory, the cycle is ended only in forgiveness. Soi’s stylish drama may paint the modern society as a venal hellscape neglected by corrupt authority, but nevertheless permits a final ray of light in the possibility of liberation through personal redemption. 


Limbo streams in Europe until 2nd July as part of this year’s hybrid edition Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Blue (BLUE/ブルー, Keisuke Yoshida, 2021)

“Let me walk on my own feet” a defeated boxer insists, reminding us that his victory is in getting up even if he always loses. The heroes of Keisuke Yoshida’s Blue (BLUE/ブルー) are by and large “losers”, though the act of winning lies not so much in knocking out your opponent as in continuing to show up for the fight. Blue is not only a state of mind, but also the colour of the challenger’s corner, the spiritual home of these dejected underdogs who refuse to lie down even when seemingly defeated. 

Urita (Kenichi Matsuyama), for example, stays in boxing because there’s nothing else he wants to do though in truth he’s not much good at the sport. What he is good at is encouraging others and even if he’s a bust in the ring he’s an excellent coach and warmhearted mentor. His friend, Ogawa (Masahiro Higashide), meanwhile, is on track to take the national title but is also in denial about a medical condition that could end his career in the ring. And then there’s Narasaki (Tokio Emoto) who only took up boxing because of an offhand comment from a girl he fancied at the pachinko parlour where he works after he got beaten up by a teenager while feeling his masculinity challenged by a handsome coworker. 

Narasaki rocks up at the gym and refuses to do anything very strenuous because he only wants to look like someone who boxes, not actually box. Nevertheless, he discovers a genuine aptitude for the sport, gradually overcoming his fear of getting of hurt as he begins to enjoy the discipline of training. His journey directly contrasts with that of one of the other young hopefuls at the club who originally knocks him out during their first sparring match but later falls victim to his own egotism, insisting that he doesn’t need to take advice from a “loser” like Urita and has his own way of doing things. In his characteristic way, Urita just smiles and reminds him it’s important to master the basics but the hotheaded youngster won’t listen, blaming his lack of success on everyone else before getting himself seriously injured trying to prove his own way is superior. 

It’s the basic moves which later prove valuable to Narasaki as he attempts to take on a powerful rival, a reminder that there’s no substitute for nailing the fundamentals. Talking over their respective differences, Ogawa wonders if he really loves boxing as much as Urita does but has then to accept that “passion and talent are different” which is why he’s succeeding where Urita failed. In any case, it’s less about winning in the ring than it is about hard work and mastery of a craft. Smarting from his own early defeat, Narasaki also snaps back that he doesn’t want a loser’s advice only to bitterly regret it afterwards, realising that Urita’s strengths lie at the side of the ring rather than inside it. 

While Ogawa battles his illness, Narasaki also finds himself conflicted caring for his elderly grandmother and feeling guilty that his newfound love for boxing has led him to neglect her. Urita battles a sense of resentment and despair he covers with good humour in being fully aware that he doesn’t have what takes while attempting to encourage others only latterly confessing that a part of him always hoped Ogawa would lose. The demands of a sporting life may have endangered familial and romantic relationships but the guys do at least have each other and the familial camaraderie of the gym.

The important thing, the film seems to say, is to keep fighting, win or lose. Experiencing various setbacks, the guys each find themselves inhabiting their own internal rings, unable to let go of boxing glory no matter how elusive it may prove to be. Yoshida plays with genre norms such as training montages and ring-set climaxes, but also undercuts them in his frequent allusions to defeat allowing the heroes to lose and sometimes repeatedly solely so that they can get right back up again, on their own feet, ready to fight for something be that mastering the art of boxing or simply gaining a new sense of personal empowerment born of determination and self belief as they recommit to learning the “basics” of a fulfilling life. 


Blue streams in Europe (excl. Spain/Andorra) until 2nd July as part of this year’s hybrid edition Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

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)