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)

Kyoshin (共振, Keiichi Higuchi, 2021)

In modern society we often criticise others, but not always ourselves, for a perceived lack of empathy but what would it be like to truly empathise with everyone, all of the time, with no control over our own feelings? The hero of Keiichi Higuchi’s psychological drama Kyoshin (共振) finds himself with just this problem after a traumatic incident leaves him with both intense PTSD and the unwelcome side effect of being forced to feel the pain of others as his own. 

26-year-old Takehiko (Akihiro Yamamoto) thought of himself as perhaps a little over sensitive, feeling obvious discomfort sat opposite two salarymen arguing loudly in a crowded restaurant while also somewhat disconnected from his partner in a moment of supposed intimacy. It’s one evening on the beach, however, when everything goes into overdrive. Spotting two guys manhandling a screaming woman into a van he and his friend Gin (Keisuke Sohma) intervene but aren’t much of a match for two the young thugs and find themselves tied up and stunned in the back while the woman is forced to provide oral sex to the driver. Taking advantage of a momentary lapse from the other man who was busy interrogating Gin and Takehiko, the woman takes drastic action of her own in a bid to escape. Gin tries to help her, but seeing what’s befallen the driver Takehiko is plunged into fugue state able to do nothing other than scream in pain as if it were he that had suffered the catastrophic injury. 

A year on, Takehiko is a broken shell of a man unable to venture outside owing to the intense assault of other people’s pain. Ignoring calls from Gin, he’s cared for by his older brother Yuya (Daichi Yamaguchi) who ferries him to various doctor’s appointments, jeopardising his own employment in the process. Sick of medical professionals unwilling to admit they don’t know how to help him and obsessed with the curse of 27, Takehiko decides he’ll take his own life if there’s no improvement in his condition by his next birthday but then discovers potential salvation in an experimental programme run by a lesbian couple in which he will receive treatment from a woman who once experienced something very similar to himself but claims to have learned to live with it. 

The irony is that Takehiko’s condition is caused by extreme empathy in that he cannot avoid feeling other people’s physical pain as his own, yet he continues to treat those around him badly blind to the emotional toll caring for him is taking on them. His brother, feeling a parental responsibility as their parents passed away young, drops everything to help him but his boorish boss, ironically, has a fundamental lack of empathy. Annoyed that Yuya takes so much time off, he openly mocks him making the rather irrelevant point that Takehiko is 26 not six and therefore shouldn’t need so much care virtually accusing him of mollycoddling as if the problem were Yuya’s anxiety rather than his brother’s precarious mental health. 

Yet the experimental programme Takehiko finds himself involved with raises its own collection of ethical questions as the psychiatrist pushes him into a series of erotic situations arguing that if he learns to empathise across the emotional spectrum to experience other people’s pleasure as well as their pain he’ll be able to turn it off much more easily or at least flatten it out. She implies that similar therapies are what has enabled her to live a relatively normal life, but fails to disclose that she is also carrying a similar trauma which the treatment ironically recalls while largely failing to deal with the obvious possibility of transference in the potentially inappropriate lack of boundaries between patient and doctor. 

It might not be appropriate to ask how much empathy is too much empathy, but Takehiko’s path to recovery ironically enough lies only in secondary shock and a brush with death that allows him to reconnect with his friend Gin, suffering alone in their shared trauma, while empathising emotionally with his brother’s obvious care for him. It isn’t so much that Takehiko needs to disengage with those around him, but learn how to process effectively so that he can better help and understand rather solipsistically internalising external suffering. Shot with a sense of uneasy eeriness and a sci-fi twist in the manifestation of Takehiko’s descent into an oppressive empathy bubble, Higuchi’s provocative drama advocates for caring a little more about the pain of others but not so much that it stops you seeing where it hurts. 


Kyoshin streamed as part of Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival 2021.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Lovely Little Ai (愛ちゃん物語♡, Ohno Candice Mana, 2021)

A lonely teenage girl begins to reevaluate her ideas of freedom and family after bonding with a sophisticated older woman from her neighbourhood in Ohno Candice Mana’s cheerfully quirky coming-of-age tale Lovely Little Ai (愛ちゃん物語♡, Ai-chan Monogatari). Aptly named for this is indeed a story of love, Ohno’s gentle drama cycles through the destructive effects of toxic, unsupportive parenting while finally finding solace in the strength of human connections to create new and enduring bonds not tied by blood. 

16-year-old Ai (Akane Sakanoue) explains that she lives alone with her father, her mother having passed away shortly after she was born, though alone is perhaps the most accurate word seeing as workaholic salaryman Tetsuo (Kan Hotoda) is rarely at home. Nevertheless, his authoritarian parenting style borders on the abusive as he bans Ai from hanging out with friends, makes her ask permission before anything she does, and insists she send him a photo of the clock to prove she’s home by the 6pm curfew (why she doesn’t just send the same picture every day is anyone’s guess). Ai seems not to think too much of it, but is also beginning to yearn for more freedom while additionally anxious that she has no friends and no idea how to make them because of her father’s controlling personality. 

Everything changes when she accidentally bumps into another woman on the street, knocking her over and spilling her bespoke cosmetics all over the road. Sensing a connection and hoping to get some feminine advice, Ai asks the woman to stay for a while and eventually ends up becoming friends with her, often eating in her apartment and taking various shopping trips together. In a sense, Ai comes to think of Seiko (Hisao Kurozumi) as a maternal figure but their relationship is later strained when she incorrectly comes to believe that she really is her mother despite having known all along that Seiko is trans and therefore could not have given birth to her. 

Well, Ai mostly refers to Seiko as someone who wears women’s clothing but evidently has no problem accepting her, offended on her behalf when a boy from school, Ryo (Ryo Matsumura), who has a crush on her rudely runs away screaming on seeing them together in town though he later makes a point of apologising explaining that he was merely shocked and had an unusual reaction born of nervousness. Nevertheless, a melancholy flashback reveals Seiko’s difficult childhood with an authoritarian father not unlike Ai’s who disturbingly decapitated her Barbie and broke her colouring in pencils in two in an attempt to discourage her femininity. Watching over Ai she encourages her to embrace her freedom, explaining that life is dull if you can’t do the things you want to do and allowing her the space and confidence to make friends with the popular girls at school while figuring out who she is in defiance of her father’s control. 

Even so on finding evidence that suggests Seiko has been keeping something from her she begins to doubt her new maternal relationship, unfairly feeling betrayed while refusing to give Seiko the opportunity to explain. What she eventually learns is that she’s come to see Seiko as a mother even if they are not related by blood and that the connection she has with her is what is most important. Her decision validates her right to choose and redefine the meaning of family including the boundaries around her own, but also affirms Seiko’s right to play a maternal role despite the rather unkind words Tetsuo had used to describe her before himself getting a wake up call in what it means to be a responsible father. 

Cute and quirky with its pastel colour scheme, whimsical production design, and frequent flights into fancy, Lovely Little Ai is a heartfelt tale of family as active choice in which a young woman comes of age while repairing her fracturing relationships by embracing the love of a new maternal figure and pushing her wounded father into accepting his emotional responsibilities and relinquishing his need for control. A lovely little tale indeed, Ai’s sweet summer story is a breath of fresh air and a welcome advocation for the new family founded on love and mutual respect rather than blood or obligation. 


Lovely Little Ai streamed as part of Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival 2021.

Teaser trailer (no subtitles)

PARALLEL (Daiki Tanaka, 2021)

A wounded young woman in search of a protector and a nihilistic serial killer fight for the meaning of existence in Daiki Tanaka’s dark romantic drama, Parallel. Taking different paths out of a sense of “unworthiness” each look for ways out of this “rotten world” but find themselves mirroring the magical girl anime that inspires the killer’s desire for escape in discovering an uncomfortable sense of mutual salvation in the histories of their shared trauma. 

Panning over a scene of scattered cosmetics and tangled wigs, the camera first lights on the sight of a bearded man gently stroking coloured hair before putting on lipstick in the mirror. We then transition to a scene of violence as a young girl is brutally beaten by her parents who later lock her inside a cupboard only for the cross-dressing man to turn up and kill them with a knife. The man spots the lock on the door and rescues the girl, giving his name as Shinji and asking in a soft voice if the girl, Mai, thinks he is beautiful. Mai nods tearfully, evidently viewing the killer as her saviour. Flashing forward a decade or so, Mai is a 20-year-old woman still haunted by her childhood trauma and captivated by reports of the “Cosplay Killer” who dismembers his victims and places lights inside to make them glow. The Cosplay Killer uploads photos of Shinji along with videos of his kills though it seems that Shinji was killed by police at the scene of Mai’s parents’ murder so the current killer is thought to be a copycat. 

That turns out to be true and not. A very emo, nihilistic young man, Mikio is a manga artist working on a magical girl series in which humanoid robots developed as anthropomorphic weapons develop a sense of humanity after becoming “broken” through fighting an earlier iteration of themselves inspired by Shinji. Something similar happens to Mikio on encountering Mai. A sociopath with no sense of morality, he is confused by his innate connection with the wounded young woman apparently the only person he would not like to kill, which makes him think perhaps he should kill her. 

Meanwhile, he secretly plots with a collection of similarly disaffected young men fed up with being made to feel inferior by this “rotten” world full of “trash humans” who can’t recognise people from machines. The present source of their ire is TV pundit Okudera who is a frequent commenter on the Cosplay Killer later going on a long rant about how anime should be banned for corrupting the minds of the youth seeing as they never had this kind of thing in their day. Backstage meanwhile he makes a point of humiliating his assistant, forcing him to get down on his knees and apologise for being “worthless” insistent that he should be grateful Okudera is training him so thoroughly when the rest of the world is so cold. 

Mai too just wants to feel “worthy”, laughing about a rubbish date with her friend Kana in which a dating app hook up earnestly declared his love. Kana not unfairly thinks that might have been a little creepy but even though she doesn’t plan to see the man again Mai enjoyed the attention in the sense that in the moment she needed to feel desirable. That might be why she seems to be making a living through compensated dating, making the middle-aged man she hangs out with wear a wig to better resemble Shinji while he somewhat uncomfortably echoes the words of her abuser in making her say “I love you, Daddy” over a hug to end the session. He offers her more money for a pair of her used panties, but at present Mai thinks that’s a step too far. 

Equally drawn to Mikio, Mai finds herself bonding with the “creepy” young man the pair of them baring their literal scars and then symbolically giving each other new ones with the aid of a box cutter. Mikio is obsessed with the idea of transformation but originally rejects his attraction to Mai because would it tie him to this rotten world rather than the better anime one his killing sprees allow him to escape into, his mangaka mentor later asking him why he can’t use love to transform himself and find new meaning, a kind of Earthly magic, in human connection but all of this is perhaps forgetting that Mikio is a man who stalks, kills, and dismembers his prey later explaining that unlike Mai no one came to save him from the abuse he too suffered and this was the way he freed himself. His concept of revolution has an extremely dark edge reminiscent of that pursued by angry, embittered young men radicalised by their sense of inferiority and so the otherwise touching affirmation from Mai that he has shown her the magical moment everything can change because they can create their own meaning in life has an unavoidable air of discomfort. A mix of slasher horror and emo teen romance, Tanaka’s giallo-esque neon-lit journey through a world of trauma and abuse allows its “broken robot” to find both peace and purpose but equally to avoid responsibility for his heinous violence.


PARALLEL streamed as part of Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival 2021.

Action Dongja (액션동자, Yongminne, 2020)

Four little monks discover brotherhood in their shared sadnesses as they valiantly chase down a gang of evil robbers specialising in thieving ancient relics from Buddhist temples in Yongminne’s slapstick kids adventure movie Action Dongja (액션동자). Exposing a societal prejudice against orphans along while upending a few stereotypical notions about monks, Yongminne’s warmhearted drama is equal parts a coming-of-age tale for each of the pint-sized monastics and Home Alone-style heist movie as the kids plot how to take down the crooks using their unique skillsets.

Little Jingu has had it tough. He lost his parents at a young age and has been separated from his younger sister. Now his grandmother who was raising him has died and another woman whom the grandma had apparently asked to take care of him has decided to dump him at the temple instead. Apparently Christian, the woman planned to leave him at an orphanage but thought the temple might be better because he’ll be near his grandmother’s resting place. As might be expected, Jingu does not take well to his new life. Not only is he overcome with grief having lost all of his family members, his home, and everything he knew but he didn’t ask for this very regimented existence and it’s obviously an extreme adjustment which might explain why he’s become mute, sullen, and withdrawn. Nevertheless, one very cheerful and friendly boy nicknamed “piggy” because of his bottomless stomach, extra sensitive nose, and obsession with food keeps trying to make friends with him even coming to his aid when he’s hazed by a couple of local kids at school and later bailed out by two top martial artists, the kind and sensitive Jeongbeop and the exceedingly mean and authoritarian Gajin. 

Jeongbeop explains to the bullies that it’s not right to bully those weaker than yourself and so they had no choice other than to defend themselves, asking for forgiveness as they leave. That doesn’t make much difference to the monks, however, when the boys’ parents turn up to throw their weight around insisting that they don’t want kids like these at their sons’ school virtually accusing the temple of training up little thugs. “Kids without parents are the ones who lie” one fires back, unwilling to believe her good little son could have misrepresented himself while reflecting a societal prejudice towards those who have no family. The younger of the two monks tries to defend the boys, insisting that it’s hardly their fault they’re orphans, but the chief monk is quick to placate the parents while perhaps sending mixed messages punishing Jingu and the other boys but later taking them out for Korean barbecue. Though many Buddhist monks are vegetarian, it is not strictly required and in any case the boys are too young to be expected to adhere entirely to asceticism yet the group’s presence once again arouses a degree of suspicion and resentment as opposed to mere surprise in an irrationally annoyed couple on a nearby table. 

Meanwhile, the boys are also rejected by their peers who unfairly blame them when their temple is robbed, the chief monk stabbed, and a precious picture scroll stolen. Jingu happened to see the face of the man who did the stabbing, but is unable to say anything later telling his new friends when they hatch a plan to catch the thieves themselves as a way of regaining the respect of the other boys and getting justice for the chief monk. In true heist movie style, Jingu who has not yet had his ordination takes the other kids shopping so they can better blend in, the gang even becoming temporary street performers Piggy rapping sutras while the other two do a martial arts display, to pick up extra cash after getting pickpocketed in the big bad city. Unexpectedly it’s Piggy who saves the day with his famously well-attuned sense of smell, picking up the scent of incense on a suspicious man at the port. Bonding during their mission, the boys come to an understanding of their various traumas and the ways in which they inform some of their behaviour generating a sense of brotherhood as they band together to take down the robbers. An old-fashioned kids adventure with a monastic twist, Action Dongja is a charming tale of unconventional found family in which the lonely hero learns to find his place while chasing bad guys and solving crime.


Action Dongja streamed as part of Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival 2021.

MANZAI Conflict (令和対俺, Kenya Okubo, 2021)

“There’s definitely nothing good about him at all” is the verdict on the Tsukaguchi, the irredeemable hero of Kenya Okubo’s eventually intense psychological drama MANZAI Conflict (令和対俺, Reiwa tai Ore). Not even his stage partner Kunimatsu is prepared to defend him as a person, but still refuses to end their partnership insisting that Tsukaguchi is funnier than he is though to everyone else evidence of Tsukaguchi’s funniness is thin on the ground. “Manzai” is a form of double act comedy particular to Japan often involving high speed, surreal narrative skits thrown back and for between the funny guy (boke) and straight man (tsukkomi). For these purposes, Tsukaguchi is the funny the guy in that he leads the narrative while Kunimatsu occasionally chimes in with a note of realism, but the problem is that Tsukagichi’s comedy, like the man himself, is stuck in the 1970s and his series of poor taste jokes simply aren’t very funny. 

Okubo signals his intentions early on. The film opens with a riff on the classic Toei logo, a studio closely identified with the yakuza genre and most particularly of the 1970s. Even the opening credits are presented in classic blood red calligraphy just like those of a retro gangster picture though this is not a gangster film even if Tsukaguchi broodily walks about in a trench coat and three-piece suit, smoking away and generally behaving like a street thug angry at a world he doesn’t understand. When he and Kunimatsu, at this point calling themselves the Ashtray Brothers, are banned from the rundown, tiny comedy club where they usually perform because of one of Tsukaguchi’s off-colour routines, Tsukaguchi tracks down another performer who criticised his act and brutally assaults him in the street eventually getting arrested. 

Tsukaguchi keeps harping on that he’s only one who truly understands manzai and everyone else is just a hack while the audience are simply too unsophisiticated to appreciate his art. We occasionally see brief flashbacks to the two men rehearsing which appear to show them laughing together happily suggesting that Tsukaguchi may have been conventionally funny at some point in the past when he wasn’t doing lewd routines about his grandmother’s sex life, but as a TV exec points out no one want a loose cannon like Tsukaguchi around which is why he’d like to hire Kunimatsu independently as a fill-in artist for his variety show. Loyal to the end, Kunimatsu resists and tries to bring Tsukaguchi with him, but the offer along with the failure of Tsukaguchi’s relationship with his live-in girlfriend whom he beats and attempts to rape, provokes a kind of crisis in the mind of the already troubled “comedian” born being forced to switch sides from funny guy to straight man now standing stage left rather than right. 

After the TV show, which might not even be “real”, Tsukaguchi’s mental state becomes ever more fluid drifting between fantasy and reality in confronting differing versions of himself playing straight man to his girlfriend’s funny guy before snapping back to take out his masculine frustrations on the calmer Kunimatsu who has renamed their duo the “New Cigarettes” and written a much more conventional routine better suited to a variety show audience which ironically also includes an onstage wedding. “If you stray from the path of manzai I’ll fucking kill you” he dramatically declares, an abusive partner onstage and off seemingly fragile in his masculinity and intent on dominance unable to accept either of his partners creative or romantic has the right to break with him even as his internalised self-loathing fuels his continually destructive behaviour. 

Yet Okubo in a sense refuses to condemn him. The film’s Japanese title translates as “Me vs Reiwa”, painting Tsukaguchi as a man who was simply born in the wrong time as if he’s a refugee from one of Toei’s grittier yakuza flicks where his intense misogyny and destructive male pride might have seemed even “normal” given the values of the time. Tsukaguchi literally defaces the modern society, beating it to a bloody pulp attempting to assert his own dominance while unable to escape his sense of impotence and futility. Shot in 4:3 and in a variegated muted colour scheme travelling from stark digital monochrome to a softened ‘70s grain, Okubo’s psychedelic psychodrama travels in a decidedly unexpected direction as its defiant anti-hero discovers that you can’t beat an era into submission. 


MANZAI Conflict streamed as part of Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival 2021.

Scherzo (スケルツォ, Takayoshi Shiokawa & Kanta Tomatsu, 2021)

It may be one thing to live profoundly in the moment, but if you have no memory of yesterday and know you’ll have no memory of today tomorrow can you really say that you “exist”? The hero of Takayoshi Shiokawa & Kanta Tomatsu’s Scherzo (スケルツォ) believes that he’s born every day and dies every day, his mind wiped clean each time he sleeps but how can you learn to find meaning in a life so defiantly brief in which you have no past or future?

Then again, according to a random man in a laundrette people only start thinking about the value of life in order to avoid thinking about how bad their lives are currently when the real answer is to concentrate less on whether your current life has value and more on how to lead a better one. For “Koji” however, a name he chose for himself, the question may be moot. He wakes up every day on a stained mattress in a partially exposed rooftop flat with a sign above telling him to look at the wall where he’s explained to himself that his memory resets every day. A selection of polaroid photos feature the same young woman who also appears in a video tape playing on a nearby TV though Koji doesn’t know who she is. Taking the video camera with him he walks out into the town recording his every movement in lieu of his ability to remember and lives as if there’s no tomorrow because in a sense there isn’t. His first few days he hangs out in a hostess bar where he can’t pay the bill, robs a pizza man, and visits a sex worker for some existential chit chat abandoning the rules of morality in the knowledge that there can be no consequences because he dies by night and his existence is futile. 

All that begins to change, however, when he encounters a woman, Hinako, who looks like the one in his photos and appears to be suffering from the same condition as himself. Bonding with her slowly though neither of them can recall the other, Koji suddenly wants to find a way to remember certain that logically they are here today because of something that happened yesterday because of all the yesterdays that came before. 

Scherzo literally means “joke” in Italian, and you could indeed read Koji’s predicament as a bizarre cosmic prank otherwise unexplained in its absurdity. Yet it’s perhaps also a metaphor for the mutability of memory and elusiveness of love as much as in its usage in classical music a playful allusion to the self-contained brevity of his daily lives. He feels an innate connection to Hinako, as if he must have known her before but simply can’t remember. Even the most essential of emotions, love, can it seems be forgotten or gently fade away even if, as in the bar hostess’ melancholy ballad, something of it remains when everything else is gone. This is in one sense at least, a story of a couple who’d fallen out of love, or perhaps taken it for granted to extent that they’d almost forgotten it was there, rediscovering their feelings for each other and discovering in them a meaning for life. 

Meanwhile, Koji obsessively records all of his actions, filling 40 DV tapes of a sleepless road trip with Hinako, as if a physical recording could be more accurate than an organic memory. Memory is of course subjective and you can never know what it is you’ve forgotten whereas a tape maybe tampered with or faulty but supposedly contains objective truth though even that has a subjective quality simply by virtue of who recorded it and how. Nevertheless, if you can forget love, does memory really count for anything at all? Koji thinks he dies every day, but like Alice in Wonderland no one except for Koji is the same person they were yesterday or will be tomorrow. He can’t change or grow and has only the same version of himself to offer imperfect guidance. Nevertheless it’s love that in a sense restores his identity, gives him the will to remember, and makes it possible for him to live in the shadow of tomorrow rather than in an eternal present. Shot with a deadpan absurdism, Takayoshi Shiokawa & Kanta Tomatsu’s dryly humorous drama eventually concludes that it’s the memory of love, even if old or faded or failed, that gives life meaning allowing its anxious hero to move forward in finally regaining a sense of self if reflected in the eyes of another.


Scherzo streamed as part of Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival 2021.

The Basement (지하실, Choi Yang-hyun, 2021)

Two weeks doesn’t seem like a very long time. You might think you can stick anything out for two weeks if you know it will definitely be over in 14 days, but what if you don’t know when or if it’ll end and 14 days turns into 28 with no sign it might not turn into 42? In some ways that might seem like a familiar situation at the present moment, but it’s one that comes to define the lives of an affluent upper-middle class family in Choi Yang-hyun’s pandemic allegory The Basement (지하실, Jihasil). 

When the alert goes out that South Korea is under attack with a nuclear missile apparently on its way the Choi family dutifully obey the emergency text on their phone and take refuge in the basement intending to stay the advised two weeks until the radiation will have decreased to acceptable levels. Unfortunately, however, once down there they realise their preparations have not been thorough enough, the power is out and they’ve left the suitcase containing clothing and emergency supplies upstairs. With phone lines jammed, no radio reception, and no way of keeping in contact with the outside world they have no idea if the strike actually took place or if their friends and family members made it to safety. 

Placed under such strain, it’s understandable that small grievances and tensions in the family are quick to arise. Wife Hayeon seems particularly irritated by her practically minded husband Dongbaek, describing him as “immature” and complaining that he’s never really put his family first preferring to spend his weekends playing golf with the boys. Not helping matters, Dongbaek sadly reflects that he “probably” won’t be able to go on that work jolly golfing in Thailand the following week which whatever way you look at it is not a primary concern in the present moment. She also complains that he made such a fuss buying all this expensive camping equipment that he hardly ever used but at least it’s paying off now during their accidental holiday in the dank and depressing basement of their well-appointed detached home in the suburbs of an area described as “Korea’s Silicon Valley”. Dongbaek meanwhile reflects that he’s glad they sold their Gangnam flat for a spacious house (even if they’re trapped in one room of it) because even if they’d probably have made a bundle on the housing market if this hadn’t happened, they’d be gonners as inner-city apartment dwellers. 

Nevertheless, the first crisis occurs when the family begin hearing the sound of a neighbour frantically calling to them from outside apparently unable to reach her husband or son and looking for some kind of human support. Teenage daughter Jiseon wants to open the door, but her mother is conflicted and Dongbaek dead against it. The woman’s distress clues them in to the fact that something bad really has happened on the surface, but they’ve only so many resources and Dongbaek apparently doesn’t want to share while Jiseon can’t understand how he could be so heartless as to listen to someone screaming for help and not open his door. 

He meanwhile is more invested in finding practical solutions, trying to solve the bathroom problem they neglected to think of previously while setting up a water still to catch moisture from the wooden ceiling beams, repeatedly making reference to his time in the army and disaster preparedness training. Yet the problem they can’t solve is the anxiety, how will they ever know if it’s really safe to come out especially as the radio, once it’s working, gives contradictory messages either suggesting everything’s fine or that North Korea has occupied Seoul. Practically speaking, they can’t stay down here forever, there’s only so much food and some of them are already beginning to experience ill-effects from staying so long in the dark and damp. Sooner or later they’ll have to overcome their growing sense of anxiety for the unknown outside and brave the new reality. A claustrophobic chamber drama starring only three actors with occasional outside voices, Choi’s pandemic adjacent drama explores how one family attempt to come to terms with impending apocalypse while combatting boredom in equal measure to fear and despair but discovers that togetherness and endurance are perhaps the key skills for survival. 


The Basement streamed as part of Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival 2021.

International trailer (English subtitles)