Side by Side is the sophomore directorial feature from veteran screenwriter Chihiro Ito. Under her own name and under the pen name Anne Horizumi, she has written a multitude of screenplays for hit films, partnering up in particular with Isao Yukisada for titles likeCrying Out Love in the Center of the World (2004) and The Cornered Mouse Dreams of Cheese (2020).
In 2022, she debuted as a director with In Her Room, which was produced by Yukisada and played in the Nippon Cinema Now section at the Tokyo International Film Festival. It recently went on general release in Japan and has gotten good reviews. In a month’s time, Side by Side get its theatrical release but before then, it receives its world premiere at Osaka Asian Film Festival 2023.
Family can be like shoelaces. The tighter they are, the more they hurt. That sentiment is on display in Hong Kong Family, the feature film debut of Erik Tsang. Drawing on personal experiences, Tsang cooks up a feast of an ensemble drama where each character’s inability to communicate forms the ingredients for the split experienced by a working-class family of four during a Winter Solstice dinner and the slow process of washing away the bitter aftertaste years later.
Even before the dinner tensions are cooking away as the family dip in and out of arguments while trapped together in a car as they deliver ingredients to the matriarch’s house where the meal will take place. The hen-pecking mother, Ling (Teresa Mo) and taciturn father, Chun (Tse Kwan Ho), bicker over his job loss, tight finances, and moving home. Their shy daughter, Ki (Hedwig Tam), uses her ear phones to confine herself to her own world while their hotshot son, Yeung (Edan Lui), overconfidently plays peacemaker when not playing his Sony PSP. Nobody is communicating. All are stewing away with different flavours of resentments.
From around 1966 to 1976, children and teenagers from across China were separated from families and sent to different cities and impoverished villages across China as the harbingers of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. This tumultuous time and the unhappy memories that were made is reportedly glossed over in contemporary China but it is vividly brought to life in Swallow Flying to the South, an emotionally moving stop-motion animation made almost singlehandedly by Mochi Lin.
The film finds its genesis as a tribute to Mochi Lin’s mother. Her name is Swallow. Her memories of being a 5-year-old at a public boarding preschool in central Beijing in Spring 1976 is the basis of the story. She is one of many children who are enduring a harsh lifestyle but while the others seem inured to various privations, she still bears her heart through her tears as she tries to keep up with exercise routines and lessons.
J-horror is effectively like a Frankenstein’s monster these days. When major studios resurrect a character like Ringu‘s Sadako or Ju-on‘s Kayako, there is the recycling of a patchwork of scares and tropes grafted on to gimmick storylines. Original works by horror masters like Takashi Shimizu find their scares toned down to be more acceptable to the mainstream and so, without the power to shock or even surprise, these films have the freshness of a desiccated corpse. Viewing them is like passively watching a corpse shamble on and off the screen. Then, out of nowhere, Keishi Kondo’s New Religion emerged on the festival circuit, like a breath of fresh air gusting into the genre crypt.
A truly independent film, Kondo made it in between fulltime work commitments and a crowdfunding campaign to help with post-production. What we get is a horror movie that feels close to the supernatural apocalypse films that Kiyoshi Kurosawa put out in the late 90s/early 2000s but it is wrapped up in an affecting portrait of the main character’s inchoate grief warping reality.
When we first meet the main protagonist, Miyabi (Kaho Seto), we see the tragedy that eats away at her throughout the film. While reading Virginia’s Wolfe’s The Lighthouse in the kitchen of her high-rise apartment, she fails to stop her daughter plunging to her death. Fast-forward a few years and a broken marriage and we find that she is working as a call girl and living with her DJ boyfriend (Ryuseigun Saionji), all while living in the same apartment and with her daughter’s items still around.
There is a shroud of death covering her, one might say, and that becomes exploited by the film’s antagonist of sorts, a mysterious photographer (Satoshi Oka) whose use of a voice box gives him a unnatural sound while he moves in an almost mechanical way. He is seemingly connected to the psychotic break and disappearance experienced by another call girl and it seems that Miyabi might be next in line. How? With every meeting at his creepy apartment, he takes pictures of parts of her body. Her feet, her legs, her spine. Miyabi is initially suspicious but that feeling fades away as she soon senses that with every photo taken she can detect her daughter’s spirit. She becomes addicted and finds herself departing from the calm façade she has built up to become more morbid.
With each part of her he captures on film, Miyabi finds herself losing something of her essential spirit. As she starts to come closer to the daughter she lost she moves closer to facing the grief that she has tamped down inside of herself but she risks losing everything.
Where Love Goes is a tale of love. It seems to be named after the main character but also captures how the emotion imbues people with an unshakeable inner power and how it draws them to safety. It is a striking debut. Well shot, affecting, visually distinctive. It may feature familiar characters and tropes but first-time feature film director Fuka Miyajima evades conventionality through a touch of magical realism.
We are taken to a snowbound town in Hokkaido (Fuka Miyajima’s home island) and into the cosy house of two junior high schoolers, shy silent Ai Sudo (Itsuki Nagasawa) and angry Sosuke Ito (Airu Kubozuka). They are not blood relatives but live together as a patchwork family cared for with great compassion for by Ai’s mother, Yumi (Mari Hayashida). Yumi’s love takes the form of constancy in cooking curries and caring for others first despite her own ill health. This provides a warm safe space for her kids who are enduring tormenting feelings of self-doubt, bullying in school, and the harsh snowy environment just outside their doorstep. Then Yumi dies and Ai is taken to Tokyo by her neglectful father while Sosuke is left behind, lost in confusion and fury. This is the start of Ai’s odyssey as she finds herself drawn back to her old home, Sosuke, and a new self-understanding.
In recent years there has been a push from specialist festivals to expand the range of Hong Kong films available to audiences beyond the policiers and Triad movies the island territory is synonymous with. Programmers have a rich field of titles to pick from as a new generation of local filmmakers have picked up the torch carried by the likes of Ann Hui, Mabel Cheung and Patrick Tam and tell stories about the lives of the “little people”. You know, those often relegated to collateral damage in heroic bloodshed films, the butt of a joke in raucous comedies, or a background presence in romances. Mad World (2016), Still Human (2019) and My Prince Edward (2020) are examples of portraits of common folk just trying to live life. Seeing whether they can overcome their obstacles or not often prove more electric and revealing of life on the island than any crime thriller. Narrow Road is another film to add to that list.
We are taken to Hong Kong in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. Our lead character Chak (Louis Cheung) runs a contract cleaning company. Burdened with debt and light on cleaning supplies due to shortages, he struggles along stringing together a meagre supply of work with tools and a vehicle often on the verge of breaking down. With the city closing up due to the virus, his only support comes from a few garrulous friends and his kind-hearted mother Ying (Patra Au) and a strong inner morality that sees him work hard in the belief that his honest efforts will pay off. It just has to.
With a recidivism rate of 50%, Japanese society has yet to hit upon a way to stop criminals reoffending and relies, instead, on punitive justice. Part of that punitive justice is the social ostracisation that occurs for those previously incarcerated. Getting jobs, finding accommodation, earning people’s trust, all is made harder with a criminal record.
Losing a criminal past is often the subject of films, from Kazuya Shiraishi’s One Night to Daihachi Yoshida’s The Scythian Lamb and Miwa Nishikawa’s Under the Open Sky. It is now the turn of dramatist/documentarian Atsushi Funahashi who shows the difficulties in rehabilitating former criminals with The Burden of the Past, a hard-hitting ensemble docudrama that draws upon the real-life work of CHANGE, a magazine/NPO that aims to help ex-prisoners reintegrate with society.
Written, edited, and directed by Atsushi Funahashi, this two-hour film asks us to witness the work of the staff at CHANGE and the struggle of some of their charges as they battle against the prejudice that others show when asked to live alongside people who have committed crimes.
Anshul Chauhan has carved a place for himself in the Japanese film industry as a true maverick. His first two feature films,Bad Poetry Tokyo (2017) and Kontora (2020), were both indie movies, both based on original ideas, and both featuring a cast of relative unknowns who he worked with intensely to draw out raw performances which he presented in visually dynamic ways. The force and uniqueness of his films distinguished his dramatic works in such a way that they won him play on the festival circuit, awards, and notice as filmmaker to track.
For his third feature, he changes tack and teams up with a rising star and globe-trotting actor Shogen, to make a legal drama. It looks more mainstream and like it has a bigger budget but scratch the surface of genre and its looks and you will see that it features Chauhan’s trademark tackling of thorny emotional issues as he addresses murder and justice.
December begins with a court notice being delivered. The recipients are Katsu Higuchi (Shogen) and his ex-wife Sumiko (Megumi). They were a couple until their marriage broke up after the death of their 17-year-old daughter Emi (Miki Maya). Now separated, their lives have taken radically different paths as Katsu exists as an ex-writer trapped in a haze of alcohol and anger while Sumiko has tried to move on by marrying another man. They find themselves brought back together again by the news that their daughter’s killer, Kana Fukada (Ryo Matsuura), will get a retrial.
The man who has set this reunion up is Takumi Sato (Toru Kizu), a wily defence lawyer who believes Kana was offered a raw deal at her original trial and has now been reformed. The death of a child is always highly emotive but he is laser-focussed on legal loopholes and processes as he thinks he can get a reduction in Kana’s sentence. His efforts necessitate reopening old wounds in public but in doing this he offers a second chance at life for Kana and, unexpectedly, Katsu and Sumiko.
Haruna Tanaka is a filmmaker whose film presence I became aware of through two fine shorts; Slough (2020), a contemplative and slow-paced story about the loss of a child which hit a few festivals before being featured in a MIRRORLIAR FILMS anthology, and LIFELIKE (2018), a historical drama which played at the 20th Japan Film Fest Hamburg and won the Golden Iris Prize at the Aichi International Women’s Film Festival 2018.
Her latest shorts are featured at the Osaka Asian Film Festival 2023 in a special sidebar dedicated to her. For both films, it looks like she worked with the same crew – Koichi Nakajima (DoP), Masahiro Sone (colorist), Reach Minoji (music) etc. – and used similar techniques to capture dialogue driven stories. With well-written scripts and talented performers who deliver their roles with focus, she has two films well worth watching.
Sekai is a small but wondrous film. It does one of the things that films are good at, it gives us the lives of other people. Working as writer, director, and editor, Marina Tsukada gives us two protagonists, ostensibly different, and takes us into their individual worlds and shows their commonalities and helps us relate to them. She achieves this through naturalism and minimalism, using great delicacy to convey everything.
The people we meet are a shy junior high student named Aki and a musician named Yoomi. Aki’s school life is spent keeping a low profile because of her stutter while her home life is fraught with emotional landmines as she navigates adolescent frustration with her quarrelling parents. Yoomi, on the other hand, is older, independent and lives alone. Her routine takes her between part-time work at a bar and a studio. While working, she talks to salarymen and young up-and-coming musicians.