Wrath of Desire (愛・殺, Zero Chou, 2021)

“Desire is the only truth. The body never lies” according to the prison missives penned by the heroine of Zero Chou’s latest meditation on sex, death, guilt, and repression, Wrath of Desire (愛・殺, Ài・Shā). As the title perhaps implies, Chou frames her epic tale in the extremes of Greek tragedy, opening with an ethereal desert scene and cryptic Butoh dance that equates desire with death as the victim later laments “it was I myself who pointed the knife at my heart”. 

The dreamlike opening gives way to a prophetic scene of violence as an androgynous young woman fends off an attack from a “burglar” who is later discovered to be part of a conspiracy sent to steal evidence that could be used against her father, a political candidate anxious that her existence as his love child not affect his chances of election. Visibly shaking from her traumatic encounter, Phoenix Du (Peace Yang) is comforted by the sympathetic female prosecutor in charge of her case, Jade Liu (Weng Chia-Wei), who finds herself somehow captivated by the intense tattoo artist. Witnessing her capacity for violence after they are attacked by more of the mayor’s thugs when she perhaps inappropriately offers her a ride home from the courthouse, Jade takes Phoenix back to her flat to tend to her wounds only to find herself overcome by desire when Phoenix playfully kisses her as if to test her naive hypocrisy. The two women share a single night of intense passion, but Jade is a pastor’s daughter and failure to resist her “blasphemous” desires leaves her only with shame and fear. In retaliation she has Phoenix sentenced to three years in prison hoping to forget her, while Phoenix spends her time inside writing 372 extremely intense love letters insistent that the body doesn’t lie and convinced that Jade has in fact imprisoned herself in her wilful repression. 

God is always between them, a cross hanging from the rear mirror in Jade’s car as they make their high speed getaway while it’s the Lord’s name that Jade cries out during their night of passion but out of guilt more than ecstasy as Phoenix urges her to let herself go, aware it seems that she continues to struggle against herself. While Phoenix is inside, Jade finds herself drawn to an androgynous young man, Meng Ye (Hsu Yu-Ting), who is accused of stabbing a cousin (Huang Shang-Ho) who had become his legal guardian and thereafter molested him. Referring to her as “sister’ Meng Ye reminds Jade of the younger brother who took his own life after being rejected by their religious family because of his homosexuality, something which undoubtedly contributes to her ongoing inability to accept her same sex desires describing her feelings for Phoenix as lust rather than love, something dirty and sinful to be rejected. After becoming aware of her inner conflict, Meng Ye suggests a platonic marriage to create a “family free from desire”, offering Jade the “stable family” she’s been looking for while he gains “social acceptance”. Yet on Phoenix’s release it’s Meng Ye who determines on bringing her into their life as a “friend” only to find himself consumed by jealousy while questioning the nature of desire. 

Chou intercuts the non-linear action with a series of black and white intertitles featuring Phoenix’s charred letters along with noirish, Rashomon-esque testimony from a handcuffed Jade and Meng Ye along with a third woman, Chrys (Chen Yu-Chun), who had apparently fallen for Phoenix in prison only to remain frustrated by her lack of interest in anyone outside of Jade. “Sex without love is as empty as violence without hate” Phoenix writes in one of her letters, repeating that the body does not lie and Jade is only harming herself in her continued denial. Phoenix is indeed correct, though 372 letters is rather excessive as is her stalkerish insistence in the face of Jade’s refusal. Nevertheless the ménage à trois eventually turns dark as Meng Ye determines to exorcise his resentment by making Phoenix betray herself in unmasking the hypocritical repression of her own desires. Meng Ye claims he’s a “pet” to his cousin and brother to Jade, what he wants from Phoenix is a love she might not choose to give him, but is also bound for a dark and nihilistic destination.

Though the mayoral conspiracy angle is an outlandish detail strangely forgotten in the ongoing narrative, all three are in a sense wounded orphans betrayed by parental failure and left adrift without firm anchor in a hostile society each looking for safe harbour whether in the certainty of bodily desire, its rejection, or subversion. Apparently the “first” in a six film series each set in different Asian cities (though the “second” The Substitute set in Beijing and filmed in 2017 is currently streaming via Gagaoolala, as is the reported third We Are Gamily set in Chengdu now streaming as a five-part webseries while the feature edit is also streaming via Amazon Prime US), Chou’s latest more than lives up to its name as the trio find themselves consumed by the fire of desire while unable to extricate themselves from a complex spiral of shame and repression.


Wrath of Desire screened as part of the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Han Dan (寒單, Huang Chao-liang, 2019)

Han Dan poster 1Military deity of wealth “Han Dan” is said to be afraid of the cold, so those who worship at his altar try to keep him warm with firecrackers during a ritual still practiced in the Eastern cities of Taiwan in which young men embody the god and brave the fiery assault in a daring show of their masculinity. Some volunteer to play the god for money, others for pride, and a few for atonement but there are some crimes you can’t simply burn away either with fire or by hate. The heroes of Huang Chao-liang’s Han Dan (寒單) bond through tragedy and try push past their pain through brotherhood but only one of them is aware their present relationship is founded on twisted hate fuelled revenge even as a genuine connection forms underneath.

Nerdy, earnest school-teacher-to-be Zheng-kun (George Hu Yuwei) has been fostering a lifelong crush on the girl next door, Xuan (Allison Lin), who went away to Taipei and only rarely returns home. Too shy to declare himself, he is enraged and hurt to discover that she has been secretly dating a guy they went to high school with – popular kid Ming-yi (Cheng Jen-shuo) who used to bully him for being only a trash collector’s son. Ming-yi is set to play Han Dan at this year’s Lantern Festival and his show of manly bravado is almost more than Zheng-kun can bear. In a moment of madness, he throws his lighter into a pile of firecrackers hoping to injure his rival, but Xuan runs to warn him and is caught in the crossfire. She dies from her injuries, leaving both men feeling guilty and bereft though no one else knows that it was Zheng-kun who started the fire. 

While Zheng-kun gives up on his teaching career and retreats into gloomy introspection, Ming-yi, who lost his hearing and the use of his hand in the accident, has become a drug addict and petty criminal. Riddled with guilt, Zheng-kun commits to “saving” his former enemy – locking him up while he goes cold turkey and then bringing him into the recycling business he’s started on his father’s land, but still harbours hate in his heart both for himself and for the man Ming-yi used to be.

“If only we were real friends” Zheng-kun mutters under his breath during an otherwise idyllic moment at the river. Learning more about his “blood brother”, Zheng-kun discovers that a toxic family situation is what made him such a terrible person in high school which might ordinarily have fostered compassionate forgiveness but only makes things worse for Zheng-kun who continues to hate Ming-yi to avoid having to think about how much he hates himself for what he did to Xuan. In an effort to atone, he forces himself through the Han Dan ritual year after year, scorching his body with firecrackers but finding little in the way of cathartic release.

“Feeling the pain means I’m alive” he tells a melancholy woman who seems to have had a thing for him ever since he was a shy student with a part-time job in the sleazy snack bar where she works. Now violent and angry, he’s not such a sensitive soul anymore but she loves him all the same and resents the intrusion of the late Xuan into their awkward relationship. Like the lovelorn hostess and the song they find themselves listening to, Zheng-kun too has a secret in his schoolbag that’s becoming impossible to keep but speaking it threatens to upset the carefully balanced semblance of a life that he’s forged with an oblivious, wounded Ming-yi.

Both men struggle to move on from the past, unable to forgive themselves not only for what happened to Xuan but for the choices they did or didn’t make in their youths that leave them afraid to move forward and locked into an awkward brotherhood bonded by love and hate in equal measure. A final cathartic explosion may provide a path towards a new life but only through shattering the fragile bond born of shared tragedy and irretrievable loss. A beautifully lensed morality tale, Han Dan is an acutely observed portrait of the corrosive effects of guilt and trauma but also a tragedy of misplaced male friendship as two lost souls find each other only in losing themselves as they battle the inescapable shadows of the past.


Han Dan screens as part of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival on June 30.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Sen Sen (生生, An Bon, 2018)

Sen Sen poster 1“The rules are dead but we are not” jovial granny Lili (Nina Paw Hee-ching) insists as she shows some young whippersnappers how pool should be played. An Bon’s Sen Sen (生生, Shēng Shēng) offers more than a few life lessons along its merry way as it wanders through the grieving process from both ends – an elderly woman deciding to live her best life in her last days, and a young boy trying to come to terms with the death of his older brother, but for all of its melancholia affirms that life should be lived without regrets or rancour and with as much understanding as it’s possible to have while remaining firmly rooted in the present.

An begins with an ending – Lili’s middle-aged daughter sadly dealing with her late mother’s effects, before winding back a few months to young Sen Sen (Wu Zhi-xuan) who has inherited his older brother’s smartphone. A lonely child, Sen Sen spends his evenings in fast food restaurants to avoid to going home to an empty house while his mother works nights in a convenience store. Not quite understanding how smartphones work, he is struck by the enormity of his friend’s explanation that if he wants to go on using it he will need to delete some of his brother’s files to make more space. While scrolling he gets a notification that “Live 100 Days” is currently streaming and discovers that his brother had been an avid fan of Lili’s popular web channel via which she livestreams her everyday life as she deals with her terminal cancer diagnosis.

Sen Sen and Lili are of course dealing with a similar problem but from very different positions. Lili has fully accepted her terminal prognosis and decided against chemotherapy, preferring to live out her final days as fully as possible rather than spend them in hospital suffering with the effects of the treatment. Her daughter, Yi-an, however, does not approve of her mother’s choice and keeps nagging her to keep up with her doctor’s appointments which has only placed further strain on their positive yet perhaps distant relationship. Like Sen Sen, Lili is often alone at home, her husband having passed away some years ago and Yi-an now living in the capital, which is perhaps why she gets so much out of sharing her everyday life with strangers online.

Sen Sen, meanwhile, struggles to accept his brother’s death and his mother’s way of coping with her grief. He fears that he will eventually forget him and that his mother seems indifferent to his memory. Perhaps in an effort to ease the feeling of absence, the pair will be moving to a new, smaller apartment and Sen Sen has dutifully sorted out his brother’s things but his mother has all but ignored them. Like Sen Sen, his mother doesn’t like being in the apartment surrounded by a sense of incompleteness and so she throws herself into work to avoid thinking about her loss, leaving Sen Sen feeling neglected and unloved as if she’d forgotten about him too while consumed by her own grief.

Making friends with Lili, Sen Sen begins to understand a little about his mother’s grieving process just as Lili channels some of the things she’d like to say to Yi-an into the videos she gets Sen Sen to film for her. As Lili later puts it, everybody needs to learn to let go – of past resentments, of life, and of loss that can’t be avoided. Sen Sen becomes a surrogate grandson for Lili who admits that no one really knows what happens in life and she doesn’t quite know what advice to leave behind for her daughter, while she becomes a substitute maternal figure him as she gently tries to explain that his mother isn’t rejecting him or his brother but only attempting to deal with loss in her own way.

A gentle tale of learning to enjoy life while it lasts while recognising what it is that’s really important, Sen Sen is a strangely uplifting look at life in the shadow of death seen both by those approaching the end and by the ones who are left behind. Filled with warmth and humour, An’s whimsical screenplay is as cheerful as it’s possible to be just like its openhearted heroine keen to pass on the joy of being alive even as she prepares to say goodbye.


Sen Sen screens as part of the eighth season of Chicago’s Asian Pop-up Cinema on 27th March, 7pm at AMC River East 21 where director An Bon and Nina Paw Hee-ching will be present for an introduction and Q&A.

Original trailer (English subtitles)