Daruma (極道系Vチューバー達磨, Daiki Matsumoto, 2022)

Times are hard for yakuza. The footsoldier who comes out of prison and discovers everything has changed (and from his point of view not for the better) while he’s been inside is a stock character of the post-war gangster movie but the yakuza has been in decline for decades so you’d think there might not be so much of a culture shock on emerging into the world of 2022 after 15 years away. The hero of Daiki Matsumoto’s Daruma (極道系Vチューバー達磨, Gokudokei VTuber Daruma) is however plunged straight into the deep end when his late boss’ wife (Junko Ohshita) who now heads the operation puts him in charge of a moribund film studio currently being used by the previous owner’s daughter, Shoko (Sayumi Haga), to livestream as a VTuber. 

Daruma (Rikiya Kaido) hasn’t even heard of YouTube so it’s a quite a learning curve for him when the assistant he’s given, IT nerd Sampei (Sanpesanpei), explains that a VTuber is a live streamer who appears as an animated avatar, in this case a cute high school girl. When a miscommunication about dates causes Shoko to miss an important stream, Daruma has no choice but to step in himself but though some viewers respond positively to the obvious incongruity of a grizzled old man’s voice coming out of a cute high school girl’s animated mouth others are soon flooding the comments section with anti-yakuza sentiment. Nevertheless, he eventually finds an audience after leaving his mic on accidentally while sharing prison anecdotes with Shoko and Sampei. 

There’s no question that Daruma is intended as an example of good old school yakuza while the young guys who surround the lady boss are definitely of the new generation who no longer care about things like honour or humanity. Avuncular in nature, he may be intimidating when needed but is generally cheerful and pleasant to be around which makes it difficult to accept that he was in prison for 15 years for stabbing a man to death on the orders of his gang. Even so, after after getting out, he’s quick to spring into action to help out some of his old buddies most of whom now run legitimate businesses which are suffering under the constraints of the pandemic-era economy. It’s clear the yakuza game has changed even while he’s been away, Daruma noticing one of their guys riding a delivery bike and asking if even yakuza need a side hustle these days (though as it turns out he may have been working his main job after all). As he arrives at HQ, the youngsters are busy trying to teach a veteran how to run an “ore ore” scam which he can’t seem to manage because he can’t drop his classic yakuza speech to sound like a teenager in trouble to con money out of vulnerable old people. 

Daruma’s crisis comes when he realises that the gang has shifted into lines of work prohibited by their old moral code including the manufacture and trafficking of drugs which is not something Daruma can condone. While he leaves to start his own “gang” with Sampei and Shoko, factional tensions arise between the old school veterans and the amoral youngsters with Daruma’s protege Nishimura (Kaiba Taka) caught in the middle. Meanwhile, he’s left wondering if and when he’ll have to deal with reprisals for the killing of 15 years ago as he reflects on his new found happiness as an improbable VTuber surrounded by people who love and respect him as if he really were a member of their family. 

A daruma is a round, red, figure with a rounded bottom so that it can not fall over and just like his namesake Daruma does try to keep going trying to rebuild his life in the new yakuza environment while taking care of friends and family and genuinely moved by the support of his new internet community. In the film’s gory finale he even takes on the form of a daruma, covered in red and rolling around but finally getting back up again to carry on with the help of his friends as if to symbolise his resilience and rebirth as a yakuza VTuber offering strange stories from his life of violence along with acting as a kind of agony uncle. Matsumoto frequently references classic cinema in giving Daruma the surname Mifune and having him belong to the Kurosawa clan, while Sampei claims he became a yakuza after seeing Battles without Honour and Humanity and the films of Takeshi Kitano even suggesting their lady boss reminds him of Shima Iwashita in a series of films about yakuza wives directed by Hideo Gosha in the 1980s. His gently humorous tale of yakuza redemption, found family, and unexpected new beginnings eventually comes full circle in its surprisingly bloody climax, in some ways quite literally, allowing Daruma to put the past to rest and then get back up again to rejoin his new family. 

Daruma screened as part of the 2022 Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Long Goodbye (さようなら, Yuuji Nomura, 2022)

“No matter where we go nothing will change” according to a dejected factory worker in Yuuji Nomura’s adaptation of stage play Long Goodbye (さようなら, Sayonara), yet it seems change might be possible no matter where they are if only they had the will to pursue it. Set at a small factory on a small island, the film reflects a sense of small-town ennui but also the concurrent anxiety that even if you managed to escape it life may not be so much better in the city and you’d have lost the illusionary hope that a better life is possible. Still, what each of them learns is that money alone won’t solve their problems but will definitely create a set of new ones. 

The crushing dull nature of life at the factory is rammed home in a looping series of events that begin with Miyazaki (Kouji Kawazoe) and Shibata (Yuuji Nomura) singing karaoke at local bar run by mama-san Tomiko (Kyou Mikamoto) where they appear to be the only customers before waking up early and returning for a group radio taiso session of morning callisthenics. Prone to throwing his weight around, Miyazaki doesn’t like it when Shibata invites co-workers Sueda (Naoyo Ichinose) and Chen (Syunkurou Itoh) to join them but is even more irritated by their refusal. A mousy young woman, Sueda has recently lost her parents in an accident and dreams of leaving the island to pursue a fashion career in Tokyo, while Chen came to Japan from China at 10 years old and has a habit both of comically repeating his name whenever someone else says it and of inappropriately talking about sex workers and masturbation at every given opportunity.  

The crisis occurs when Sueda and Chen discover that their boss has been fiddling his taxes and has a large amount of cash stored on the premises because he obviously can’t deposit it in a bank. Realising that he couldn’t go to the police if someone robbed him, they decide to steal the money and are eventually forced to rope Miyazaki and Shibata in to help by keeping their boss drinking at the karaoke bar while they carry out the heist. 

Of course, nothing quite goes to plan partly because Chen is a bit of a loose cannon but also because none of them are really the heist-planning sort and they have no idea what they’re doing. Sueda double-crosses Miyazaki and Shibata by leaving with all the cash while she and Chen take a taxi to Osaka station to realise when they get there they’ve missed the last train. Meanwhile, Chen has also stolen a watch from their boss’ home which places them all in danger as it gives him an opportunity to go to the police without necessarily revealing his tax evasion operation. The money represents for each of them the possibility of changing their lives or at least of leaving the island and its dearth of opportunities, but as Sueda keeps cautioning Chen you also have to know how to use it to best achieve your dreams. 

Shibata is seemingly the only one who’s more or less happy with his life as it is, constantly reminding the others that actually their lives are fine as they are, unable to understand their sense of desperation and resentful of having his life messed up by their unrealised desire for change. He challenges Sueda that the money is an irrelevance because if she really wanted to change her life she could have done it on the island but she counters him with her feelings of insignificance certain that no one really cares about her or would notice if she tried to change herself. No one can be fully satisfied with their life, he warns her, perhaps suggesting he thinks she’s asking for too much and is simply existentially restless which isn’t something she could cure through crime and a sudden flight to the city. After all, she didn’t earn the money herself, she’s just stolen it from someone else which isn’t a particularly good foundation for self-reinvention. 

After being accused of plotting the crime, Miyazaki is then forced to face his own feelings of dissatisfaction, which his arrogant belligerence was intended to cover, along with his frustrated romance with Tomoki who like everyone else just wants to run away hoping that Miyazaki will finally pay off his tab when they get the money. His attitude changes to the extent he offers to bow down to Shibata in exchange for assistance, but he similarly asks him if he really wants to change or is going to settle for his small-town existence too afraid to take the risk of gambling on something better. Their boss cautions Shibata that finding the meaning of life might not be a good thing if you end up discovering that all that awaits you is death, but it seems some do begin to find new direction thanks to their failed heist even if it’s not necessarily the direction you’d expect. 

Long Goodbye screened as part of the 2022 Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Anemone: A Fairy Tale for No Kids (아네모네, Jung Ha-yong, 2021)

“Betrayal is betrayal” according to a jaded grandmother (Park Hye-jin) reading a children’s story that’s clearly not for children to a curious little girl in Jung Ha-yong’s extremely dark comedy, Anemone: A Fairytale for No Kids (아네모네, Anemone). Later someone asks what the difference is between treachery and betrayal before conceding there might not be any, but whatever betrayal is there’s certainly a lot of it going around as a winning lottery ticket causes discord between an otherwise unhappy couple, their friends, relatives, and just about everyone else. 

As the grandmother relates reading to the little girl, Yongja is a wife and mother of one who once had an illustrious career as a martial artist and is now an aspiring children’s author. Her husband, meanwhile, is a no-good layabout and the family is in constant financial difficulty dependent on Yongja’s part-time job in the kitchen of a bar. When she has a dream about winning lottery numbers, she writes them down and tells her husband to buy a ticket before going to work. Hearing the draw on the radio, she realises she’s won and abruptly walks out on her job getting into a physical altercation with her boss as she goes, but on arriving home her husband seems confused. Eventually he admits he forgot all about buying a ticket but Yongja doesn’t believe him and is convinced that he’s stashed it somewhere and plans to keep the money for himself.  

That would obviously be quite a big betrayal, but maybe not all that difficult to understand given the relationship dynamics in play between the obviously unhappy couple. Sending their daughter to her grandmother’s, Yongja goes to great lengths torturing her husband, making him wear a nappy and trying him to a rocking horse, in an effort to get him to reveal what he’s done with the ticket only to threaten murder suicide when he continues to say he can’t give her what he never bought. Just as we’re starting to feel sorry for him, and to be honest the constant “did you or did you not buy the ticket” conversation goes on for an incredibly long time, the husband manages to escape, expanding the search for the ticket across the wider area while Yongja ropes in her gangster brother and his dodgy friend to come to her aid. 

The ticket appears to have exposed the cracks within the family unit which are largely attributed somewhat uncomfortably to a misalignment of gender roles in which the husband is feckless and useless while Yongja essentially bullies him and is consumed by a sense of resentment that she is forced to shoulder the financial burden of supporting the family. The words the grandma reads from the picture book are often at odds with the reality, presenting Yongja as having achieved success with her children’s books but showing her dismissed by an editor who ironically points out the story’s not suitable for children. The grandmother further explains that poor people buy lottery tickets because it’s their one source of hope for a better life, no longer believing they have any possibility of improving their circumstances independently, which is perhaps the case for Yongja who hopes the money can help them fix their “train wreck of a family” for a happier future. 

Then again it may be the ticket that betrays them in proving so elusive. Because of the ticket, Yongja is forced to realise that she doesn’t trust her husband and that she is right not to because he is indeed keeping something from her. Other people she can’t trust include her brother’s shady friend while he is also a liability preventing her from calling the police because there’s a warrant out on his name. The problem is that everyone wants the ticket from themselves, except perhaps for Yongja who had obviously intended to use the money for the family as a whole though it seems unlikely that a simple injection of cash could fix these toxic relationships or restore their happy home if that is ever what it was. Fairy tales are often dark and this is no exception though the reason a child shouldn’t read it is not because it’s crude or violent but simply because it would crush their tiny spirit with the overwhelming disappointment of life. 

Anemone: A Fairy Tale for No Kids screened as part of the 2022 Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival.

Catharsis After the End (#ピリオド打ったらカタルシス, Crazy Joe, 2022)

“Why should I give my freedom to anyone but myself” the hero of Crazy Joe’s (Junpei Suzuki) Catharsis After the End (#ピリオド打ったらカタルシス, #Period Uttara Catharsis) asks himself, realising that his quest for internet fame has begun to erode his sense of self. Then again as he later admits, it isn’t video site New Qube or social media that have made him what he is, the darkness was there all along.  A critique of the dangers of the age of the internet in which online approval becomes all, Crazy Joe’s highly stylised dramedy ironically finds its hero fulfilling his desires but only in the darkest of ways. 

Hiro and his friend Hide are aspiring New Qubers trying to find fame and fortune through viral video but struggling to gain a foothold in the crowded space of online streaming. They start off with annoying public pranks and later find themselves drifting into an exploitative relationship with a homeless man who makes a habit of approaching men to ask if he can give them blow jobs while searching for new ideas to reel in views and subscribers which are all they really care about to the detriment of their other social relationships. 

Hiro at least in one sense got into New Qubing as a form of revenge, secretly videotaping the boss who regularly assaulted him physically with the intention of uploading to the internet. Access to the platform is also a source power as much as it’s a dangerous drug that feeds on his need for approval. After a while he stops doing what he wants to do and finds himself preoccupied only with what other people want, what they think of him, and what he can do to gain their engagement. At one point he and Hide venture into a forest in search of a dead body, though it’s not really clear what they intend to do if they find one, but end up running into a dejected salaryman who just wants to die but can’t seem to do it. They end up asking him if he wants to make a comment on video before almost realising how inappropriate that is in the quality of the man’s refusal. Later a pair of New Qubers will ask Hiro the same question in a similar situation while he can only marvel at the irony of the situation in the rapid evolution of ideas he himself helped to breed. 

In their ever increasing quest for success, the guys are roped into helping an intense old friend, Ryu, set up an account but he only posts inappropriate content including showing people how to waterboard or beating someone to a bloody pulp so all his videos are banned, yet Hiro still finds himself feeling jealous knowing Ryu is pushing boundaries in a way he’s failing to all of which leads him to his next evolution in creating crime duo Monolith which he intends to spark some kind of social movement among the young. But to his consternation there’s little interest in his crime spree while another old friend eventually steals his thunder by confessing to the crimes himself explaining that he did them because he wants to be “famous” before live streaming a murder to cement his notoriety. Running out of ideas in a continual game of oneupmanship, the New Qubers are left with nowhere to go other than increasingly bloody violence and cruelty while their followers egg them on from the sidelines crying out for pain and suffering. 

Hiro’s quest for freedom ends only in further constraint, addicted to the artificial high of internet acclaim and willing to sink ever lower to gain it. The irony is that he wanted to create something from nothing and then see others build on what he’d started which is in a sense what happens but only in the darkest of ways. Beautifully shot and highly stylised featuring animation, on screen text, and moments of genuine horror in its ominous score and red/blue lighting, Crazy Joe’s darkly humorous exploration of the ills of the contemporary society in which nothing happens if it doesn’t happen online presents an incredibly bleak prognosis for the evolution of social media but nevertheless has sympathy for its “scum of the earth” hero who only too late begins to realise he’s lost touch with himself in his never-ending quest for the approval of others. 

Catharsis After the End screened as part of the 2022 Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Hypnosis (ヒプノシス, Takuto Okui, 2022)

The difference between hypnosis and brainwashing, according to a recently released street thief, is that brainwashing forces you to do something you don’t really want to whereas hypnosis merely encourages you to act on a latent desire. He perhaps leans a little heavily on this defence, justifying his own actions as only accidental motivators as if his victims were somehow complicit in his crimes, yet there is something in what he says if only in his own wilful self-delusions. 

A graduation project, Takuto Okui’s Hypnosis (ヒプノシス) follows protagonist Kazuto across two time periods 15 years apart opening in colour with the young Kazuto hypnotising and then robbing a policeman of his watch and gun, before jumping forward and into black and white to find him recently released from prison using his powers for “good” to knock out a sexually aggressive guy and rescue sex worker Maki from being assaulted in an alleyway. Taking her for a hamburger dinner he can’t convince her to eat, he explains that he was passing through on a trip down memory lane remembering when he’d saved his first love Mei from a similar situation with an abusive boyfriend. 

Kazuto proves his point about hypnosis only working if the target on some level wants to comply when his attempt to convince Mei to leave violent partner Masashi immediately fails, she later coming to the conclusion her decision to stay with him was also a kind of brainwashing. Nevertheless, he seems to be able to pull Jedi mind tricks on various policemen while otherwise using it to manipulate a situation to his advantage. We might wonder about his ability to pull the wool over our eyes especially when he pulls a gun on his abusive father, a fantasy sequence giving way to his shooting him for real but there being no sign of blood at the scene though a policeman does turn up a little later having received a report of a gunshot only for Kazuto to convince him to go away without investigating further. 

In each timeline he’s minded to play the hero, firstly trying to save Mei from Masashi and then Maki from the loansharks who have been after her ever since her father took his own life after unwisely guaranteeing a loan for his boss who then ran off and left him to carry the can. But the more he tells us the less we trust him, painting a picture of romantic tragedy in which he was cruelly robbed of his true love and languished in prison for 15 years while Masashi apparently went on enjoying his life. “That’s how this story ends” Kazuto stoically explains, suggesting that it’s how he’s chosen to end it in not immediately gunning for revenge on his release from prison but also hinting at a degree of personal myth making in creating an ending that fits with his version of events. 

The colour sequences are in a way part of the movie in his mind, the way he’s taught himself to remember it, while the black and white are just that a starker version of an objective truth without Kazuto’s editorial filter. He says he wants to help Maki, and perhaps he does, but is also playing an angle to get his hands on her money while leaving her open to reprisals from the loanshark, not to mention his grand plan involves selling someone to an elite club of French of torture enthusiasts through middle woman Akemi who, as a kind of anchor, has apparently not changed in the 15 years he’s been in prison. 

Even so, reality will eventually come calling for him and he’ll go to great lengths to protect his self-deluded fantasy, preserving the grand act of self-hypnosis he’s practiced on himself. As it turns out, there are some situations you can’t talk your way out of or escape through a simple Jedi mind trick but the ability to rewrite the past as you remember it might be the next best thing. Heavily stylised, Okui’s noirish drama pits fantasy against reality and objective truth against delusion while Kazuto wanders between failed hero and cowardly villain unable to protect anything or anyone save perhaps his image of himself even in his failure. 

Hypnosis screened as part of the 2022 Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival.

Interview with the director (Japanese only)

Piece of Atom (アトムの欠片, Takuya Koda, 2021)

A teenage boy attempts to come to terms with grief following the sudden death of his parents in Takuya Koda’s nostalgic youth drama, Piece of Atom (アトムの欠片, Atom no Kakera). Quite clearly influenced by the films of Nobuhiko Obayashi, Koda’s summertime drama contemplates transience and eternity in insisting that nothing’s ever really gone forever and that we leave traces of ourselves wherever we go that may be picked up by anyone able to discern them. 

Teenager Ryo is very into science and particularly interested in the nature of the atom. He lives with his parents and much older sister Shiho in a small flat in Tokyo, but when his mother and father are killed in a car accident he is forced to move to a house the family owned in the country which is in a state of disrepair. At around 30, Shiho does her best to create a stable environment for her brother as they work together to repair their home but there’s also strange ethereality in her behaviour that suggests she’s trying to prepare him for an early adolescence. 

Neither of them seem to know very much about their parents’ pasts or why it is they have this house which obviously has not been visited in many years. Yet soon after his arrival, Ryo begins to encounter a strange phenomenon in which he almost breathes in floating memories of his father which begin to illuminate the parts of his parents’ lives which had remained hidden from him. He attributes this to the presence of his father’s “atoms” which he shed while, as Ryo discovers, he lived in the area as a student. Later he comes to the realisation that some of his father’s atoms survive in him as well as in everything he ever touched or came into contact with and that he might also posses the atoms of famous historical figures forever connecting him to the great confluence of humanity comforted by the knowledge that his parents did not simply disappear from the world and parts of them will forever remain within it. 

Meanwhile, he’s also a city boy trying to adapt to life in the country. His first shock is that his school is so small that there are no grades, all the children are being taught together. In any case he quickly makes a friend with local boy Ken, who shares his love of tokusatsu hero “Woodman”, setting up a secret base for them both in an abandoned car on a local dump. Ryo fights with his sister over personal privacy, irritated by her tendency to tidy his room without warning like any teenage boy might be, while struggling to define his idea of family now that there are only two of them. Before he died, Ryo had wanted to ask his father who had penned a book on the subject why atoms are round and how they hold together only to get a partial answer through one of his visions which is echoed by Shiho’s explanation that it’s his feelings which hold her together as if his unwillingness to let her go literally binds her atoms in their current form. 

Yet as she also points out, atoms may be eternal but people are not and she cannot stay with him forever. Echoing the work of Nobuhiko Obayashi, Kudo’s dialogue is often theatrical and self-reflective, while he makes surprising use of green screen and special effects to lend a note of unreality to the world around Ryo as he embarks on a journey of self-discovery across a timeless and nostalgic summer. The atoms he refers to are less physical particles, though clearly that too, than fragments of memory littered over a landscape as a kind of proof of life. Like a snail trail of human existence, they are evidence of the traces left behind by those who have gone allowing Ryo to come to a greater understanding of his parents while learning to let them go in order to move forward with his life. An affecting coming-of age-tale, Kudo’s occasionally psychedelic drama repurposes the atom as an embodiment of memory and feeling, a force that preserves its integrity while allowing its young hero to find an accommodation with loss through the contemplation of eternity. 

Piece of Atom screened as part of the 2022 Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Enma-san (えんまさん, Tomoki Suzuki, 2022)

A young woman with the ability to see people’s true thoughts thanks to a magic mirror becomes consumed with hatred for the world’s duplicity but finds unexpected connection with a girl who never lies in the stylish debut feature from Tomoki Suzuki, Enma-san (えんまさん). Named for the Japanese god of hell, the film finds the emo heroine looking for an escape from a nihilistic existence in which nothing and no one can be trusted but rather than salvation finding only further despair in realising even she may not be exempt from the curse. 

17-year-old Ema lives alone with her mother and mostly keeps to herself at school. Sometimes people try to befriend her and she concedes they’re kind, but there’re also “liars” mostly trying out of pity. Since coming into possession of a mirror which looks just like that of the great god Enma, she’s been confronted by the gap between what people say and what they really think unable to put up with such moral duplicity. But then she comes across a young woman who looks perfectly normal in the usually warped vision of her mirror. It is as she says love at first sight. Realising Seira is being badly bullied by her classmates, Ema resolves to do something about it, not least because she thinks people who are honest should be rewarded and Seira doesn’t deserve to be treated so poorly. 

Indeed, with her strong sense of justice, Ema comes to take on the form of Lord Enma himself vowing to punish and eradicate liars starting with Seira’s bullies. Yet in meeting her there’s something in Seira which seems to soften her resolve. Though she had shunned the human world, Ema gradually begins to warm up to it while spending time with Seira who perhaps isn’t quite as honest as she’s made out to be but has managed to find an accommodation with an acceptable level of deception. Ema refuses to wear makeup because it’s like pretending to be someone else while becoming anxious about the idea of touching up the photos they had taken in a sticker booth at the arcade because it means they’re altering the truth of the image. Seira meanwhile corrects her pointing out that her makeup is barely noticeable, while even if the photo is inauthentic the memory it represents is not. She even convinces her to eat a slice of cake at a cafe, a place she ordinarily wouldn’t go and food she wouldn’t usually eat as it would be made by liars. 

Then again there’s a healthy amount of self-deception going on with Ema as she finds herself sinking into the persona of Lord Enma, threatening to cut out people’s tongues and eventually embarking on a dark and twisted path towards nihilistic violence disguised as justice. But then not quite everything is as she assumes it to be, later discovering Seira may not be quite as honest as she first thought and has troubles of her own with overbearing perfectionist parents whose approval she is so desperate to gain that she’s even willing to cheat. The connection between the two women, be it friendship or something more, is genuine yet they are to some degree on opposing sides while the tension inside Ema threatens to turn her into that which she most hates in the ambivalence of her emotions. 

Divided into chapters through a series of elegantly designed title cards, Suzuki’s cool colour palette bears out the loneliness and resentment of Ema’s nihilistic world view brightening only when she’s around Seira, while occasionally shifting into Ema’s mirror vision in which the world becomes blurry amid the unreality of so many liars. Yet as she’s told towards the end by a sympathetic policewoman lies are a normal part of human nature and may even be essential to a well functioning society, the tragedy being that Ema is not aware of her self-delusion until fully forced to face herself and the confusion of her feelings. Still for a few brief moments she discovered how “comfortable and pleasant” it could be trusting other people even if it turns out somewhat ironically that her trust, if not perhaps her faith, may have been mistaken. 

Enma-san screened as part of the 2022 Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

0&1 (Kei Nakata, 2001)

Filled with a sense of post-millennial ennui, Kei Nakata’s 2001 noir drama 0&1 is a familiar tale of fatalism and existential crisis but also a zeitgeisty capture of turn of the century Tokyo in which its heroes appear lost and in continual fear of displacement. Now digitally remastered, the meta quality of the film’s use of early DV ironically adds to the characters’ quest for proof of life through video while bearing out the mutability of physical recording which in itself can become inaccessible with terrifying speed. 

A young hitwoman ironically codenamed “0” is beginning to question her repetitive life of ceaseless killing, feeling in a sense as if she does not quite exist. In a quest to document her existence, she buys a handheld DV camera and begins recording herself and her thoughts as a kind of proof of life verifying that she does in fact live. “My memory will disappear someday. Will I disappear too?” she asks herself, stopping to capture cherry trees in bloom but disappointed to discover something at the harbour already gone. 

Her opposing force, a male hitman codenamed “1” is in the midst of a similar existential crisis feeling himself lost in a crowd as if it would make no difference to anything if he were to disappear. Unknowingly crossing paths with 0 in the chaos of the Shibuya scramble, he idly picks up a DV tape left behind in a cafe and, buying a DV camera for himself, is struck by 0’s existential musings. Taking up the camera he too begins to film himself because in this moment he wanted to exist even if describing his existence as “waiting to disappear slowly”. “We don’t know where to go” he laments, talking not just for himself and his opposing number but for the present generation trapped by post-Bubble malaise and millennial anxiety. Nakata frames his tale in terms of Y2K paranoia mired in the distrust of new technologies, but these two binary individuals look for salvation in the video screen for proof that they exist and that their reality has veracity.

Nevertheless, as the opening text informed us, 0 and 1 are numbers not meant to touch and their accidental meeting may spark its own kind of revolution in this case in the minds of two killers for hire otherwise trained neither to think or feel. Through their interactions, each begins to rediscover their sense of humanity while burdened by existential questioning but their newfound desire for emotional connectivity and individual identity is necessarily dangerous to their handlers who abruptly decide their broken robots must be destroyed before the contamination spreads. 

Yet the veteran they set on their tails, a refugee from old noir in crumpled trench coat, is facing much the same dilemma realising his end is near and in what form that end may likely come. Visiting an old school smokey jazz bar apparently after some time, he remarks on how nothing has changed inside but it too may soon disappear along with his own place to belong. Like the youngsters, he has grown tired of an existence of cynical repetition but given a new job he doesn’t quite like complains that in the old days things were fairer and had a kind or nobility rather than this rather sordid piece of housekeeping he’s just been asked to perform which could, he assumes, also be the end for him. His opposing number, however, is a pure survivalist living squarely in the moment who resents being saddled with a partner and insists on doing things her own way. 

Melancholy in its sense of fatalism, 0&1 ironically captures an early 20th century Tokyo which like its heroes has long since disappeared. The early DV aesthetic, while never quite beautiful, is the perfect evocation of the early 2000s while the medium itself has become largely obsolete, a digital halfway house now viewable only to those with the correct technology to unlock its secrets. Yet Nakata’s nihilistic prognosis is bleaker than it first seems, the heroine’s hopes of putting the camera down to make her own memories seemingly a forlorn hope while no refuge is available from the all pervasive sense of post-millennial emptiness, not even in dreams. 

 0&1 streamed as part of Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival 2021.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Zombie Infection (Belaban Hidup: Infeksi Zombie, Ray Lee Voon Leong, 2021)

An indigenous village finds itself under threat thanks to concurrent waves of colonialism in Ray Lee Voon Leong’s indie undead drama, Zombie Infection (Belaban Hidup: Infeksi Zombie). “Don’t concern yourself with outsiders. Our longhouse should be our only concern” advises the village head, yet as the heroes will shortly discover nowhere is really as isolated as it might at first seem and the consequences of exploitation and abuse will eventually reach even the deepest of forests.

As detailed in the opening voiceover animation, evil Russian mad scientist Dr George (Weeam Shawaheen) has fled to Borneo after creating chaos elsewhere and is currently conducting his nefarious experiments on the marginalised taking villagers off the streets and tricking orphans with the promise of free medical care in return for participating in “clinical trials”. Unfortunately, Dr George’s marvellous medicine turns people into zombies which becomes a problem when a bunch of them escape along with a handful of orphans fleeing their captivity at the hands of the exploitative physician. After searching a nearby mall looking for a missing sister and picking up a little boy orphaned by his zombified mother, the gang make their way into the forest assuming that the rough terrain will make it harder for the zombies to follow them but unfortunately they are not quite correct in their assumption. 

Meanwhile, an indigenous village is going about its normal life hunting in the forest little knowing they are already under threat despite the persistent nightmares plaguing village head’s son, Gadang (Pablo Amirul). Gadang is soon to become a father for the second time but his relationship with his young daughter Suna is beginning to fray, his wife Jawai (Anna Melissa) cautioning him that he can’t keep making promises only to disappoint her later as he agrees to take her swimming in lieu of allowing her to accompany him into the forest. His father patiently sharpens knives, insisting that it’s best to be ready for any eventuality though village life seems to be happy and as far as they know there is no reason to feel unsafe. Nevertheless, the infection soon catches up with them even if they are slow to believe claims of an undead invasion coming from “outsiders” later blamed for bringing evil into the forest. 

Only, it wasn’t the orphans who brought it, one of whom has indigenous tattoos on his shoulders and speaks the same language as the other villagers, but arguably two of their own who had sold out their people to collaborate with Dr George in return for riches. Realising the scale of the problem on his hands, Dr George determines to look for an antidote but there’s nothing he can really do to put right the chain reaction his immoral greed has caused in his exploitative misuse of the marginalised members of a small South East Asian nation. 

“What has happened is indeed alarming” according to one of the villagers in what might be the understatement of several centuries, but isolation is no longer enough to protect their longhouse from the ravages of colonialism as they find themselves assaulted by hordes of man-eating monsters created by the greed and amorality of the infinitely corrupt Dr. George. Gadang is forced to face his nightmares, anxious in assuming his father’s responsibility to protect the village while mindful that he has perhaps in a sense neglected his duties as a husband and father while playing the big man in the forest. It’s just as well his dad sharpened all those knives, because they are its seems their last defence even as they’re forced deeper into the forest in search of a safety that may no longer exist. 

At its best when exploring the lives of the indigenous community, Zombie Infection reaches its stride only when arriving at the forest even while its attempt to shift focus from the fleeing orphans to the villagers is only partially successful. Nevertheless, the film makes the best of its meagre budget with some impressive prosthetics and zombie choreography as the villagers go after the undead threat with indigenous weapons and wearing traditional dress. Yet as the film’s melancholy conclusion perhaps implies, the legacy of colonialism can’t be overcome so easily leaving the survivors in the middle of a battle seemingly far from its end. 

Zombie Infection streamed as part of Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival 2021.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

My World (Murantin, 2021)

Perhaps we’ve all had that lonely feeling recently, walking around eerily empty streets as if somehow the world had ended while we were asleep and now we’re all alone, but the hero of theatre actor Murantin’s feature debut My World is about to discover that he really is (almost) the last of his kind as he struggles to reconstruct his history, identity, and sense of self while encountering only two other women one young and one more his own age but each with strange and unclear motives. 

A man wakes up naked in a park, almost rebirthed in a sense, and rises in confusion. Finding a grey tracksuit abandoned a little way away he wanders through a town he doesn’t recognise where all the stores are closed and there are no people nor any traffic on the streets. With no sign of life to be found he’s drawn towards a library but finds little in terms of illumination before leaving and noticing a second Earth hanging in the sky where the moon ought to be. Returning to the park he sleeps, but is woken in the morning by an apparently concerned high school girl who later offers him a place in her home where she is currently living alone as her siblings are away and her parents abroad. A kind gesture, but perhaps not very sensible given her circumstances. In any case, she tells the man not to go out, buying him some nicer clothes and cooking dinner every night.

With no memories of his own, the man remains confused. The high school girl appears to be living normally. She leaves every day to attend class which suggests there are other people around though he never sees any and the strangely old-fashioned TV in the living room only displays static. One day she informs him her boyfriend wants to come over so he’ll have to make himself scarce, later escorting him to the basement where she handcuffs him to a water pipe. Why would a regular high school girl own a pair of sparkly handcuffs with fairytale-esque little blue keys? Why is he not supposed to look into any of the other bedrooms? What secrets is this world hiding from him? The plot begins to thicken when he decides to break the rule and follow the high school girl to see where she goes, only to find himself at the library again where he encounters a middle-aged woman in what appears to be her negligee. 

The man is in a sense imprisoned within the house, the handcuffs a literal extension of his mental constraint in a world which may be of his own making in wilful self-exile from a traumatic past. His strange dreams hint at another life, possibly on the other Earth, in which there are flashes of potential violence. Before long he begins encountering other versions of himself, fracturing under the weight of his internal confusion when directly confronted. The high school girl tells him he’s creating too much “disorder” and the only way to repair it is to go back to his own world, but the man doesn’t want to. Describing it as painful, he insists there’s no need to return if he can stay with the high school girl but in the end he will have to face himself and the traumatic past from which he seems to be in mental flight. 

Dreamlike in its uncanniness, Murantin’s camera chases a man on the run from himself as he walks through a world already dead, a still place with no past or future. He does not know himself, and no one else does either or at least that’s what they claim. The world is quite literally his, a place which he has unwittingly created in refuge from his trauma but he is no god only a man imprisoning himself, a wilful exile from a world he couldn’t accept. A tale of guilt and loneliness, My World offers its hero a chance at redemption through facing his past, accepting his responsibility, and learning the truth about himself but nevertheless concludes that there may be only one path to freedom while atoning for his transgressions in a world suddenly more alive and once more in motion. 

My World streamed as part of Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival 2021.

Trailer (English subtitles)