Movies: After the Storm

image after the storm v2

This poignant Japanese film explores the day-to-day life of former writer Ryota (played by Hiroshi Abe). After failing to live up to his early promise, he holds down a job as a private detective and struggles to support his ex-wife Kyoko (Yoko Maki) and young son Shingo (Taiyo Yoshizawa). Unsurprisingly, there is plenty of sadness and tension in this broken relationship, yet it is balanced by a gentle humour that surfaces when you don’t expect it, especially in the scenes with his mother Yoshiko, played by Kirin Kiki of Sweet Bean. The drama culminates in an overnight stay in Yoshiko’s tiny apartment, where the divorced couple and their son end up sheltering together to avoid a typhoon – the storm of the title. This movie falls emphatically in the “slice of life” category, though with a brief nod to detective-led genres. So don’t go in expecting resolution of any sort, just enjoy this cinematic portrait of Japanese urban living, and the subtlety of these very human relationships.

After the Storm (2016)
Director Hirokazu Kore-eda
Running time 117 min

You can view the trailer below.

Movies: Miss Hokusai


Screened during the Mill Valley Film Festival, this anime movie opens a window onto the household of Hokusai, the great 19th century Japanese artist, and in particular his daughter O-Ei. The film is based on the manga Sarusuberi and, as the introductory speaker noted, it is not by Studio Ghibli, whose output has tended to dominate western cultural channels of late.

O-Ei makes a fantastic central character for a movie. She is stubborn and feisty, exerting considerable sway over her eccentric father and his dubious hangers-on. She has inherited her father’s talent and is shown to be a gifted and ambitious artist, prepared to tackle all subjects, even the seamier material. She is also very sensitive to the needs of her blind younger sister: the relationship between these two is among the more tender and affecting parts of the movie.

I marvelled at the convincing recreation of the late Edo period (the year is 1814), and at the references to iconic artworks such as the woodblock print The Great Wave. However, the goal here is not the pure realism of a biopic: we see supernatural forces intrude on the action again and again.

I also warmed to the earthy, slightly irreverent tone of the piece, which made a change from the more earnest Studio Ghibli productions. The soundtrack is a delight – for instance, the playful juxtaposition of contemporary rock music with a classic 19th century panorama of the city. Recommended, especially for those with an interest in Edo-period Japan or the life of Hokusai.

Miss Hokusai (Sarusuberi) (2015)
Director Keiichi Hara
Running time 90 min

You can view the trailer below.

Movies: Sweet Bean

poster sweet bean

I enjoyed a rare trip to the cinema to see the new Japanese film Sweet Bean, directed by Naomi Kawase. Masatoshi Nagase stars as the manager of a small shop selling dorayaki, a sweet made from two little pancakes sandwiched with red bean paste. An elderly lady (played by Kirin Kiki) approaches him for work, gradually revealing herself as a great culinary talent, who can teach him how to make the ultimate red bean paste.

Sweet Bean starts out as a food movie par excellence, then morphs into something darker. There are many loving shots of pancake production and Azuki beans simmering, and in a sense the work of the shop is at the heart of the story. However, it is the growing rapport between the three main characters that draws you in close: the manager, the old woman and a schoolgirl customer (played by Kyara Uchida), each of them concealing their own private sorrows.

This was a moving story and, bar one or two moments of extreme slowness, absorbing throughout. The visual effects are beautiful, especially the classical emphasis on the passage of the seasons, and the great clouds of cherry blossoms. Recommended!

Sweet Bean (2015)
Director Naomi Kawase
Running time 113 min

You can view the trailer below.

Wastelands: contemporary Chinese art at OVADA

cai yuan untitled
I went exploring this weekend to a warehouse in a less-than-popular part of Oxford, to see a show of contemporary Chinese art. The space is run by OVADA – the Oxfordshire Visual Arts Development Agency – and the show was Wastelands, a group exhibition around themes of consumption and waste.

I enjoyed the colourful contributions from Cai Yuan (b. 1956), who also co-curated the show. His large untitled installation uses cut sections of cardboard boxes painted in bright acrylics, suspended in the air and cascading over the floor in wasteful abandonment.

In his ISMS series, he presents single-colour panels, the paint lightly inscribed with words ending in –ism. I was expecting mainly political vocabulary, but it ranges much wider: for instance, “narcissism, sensualism, materialism, hacktivism, globalism, romanticism …”. The panels are arranged in pairs, so you can’t help but puzzle over them, wondering why A has been paired with B and so on.

Text is also foremost in Labels of Desire by Wessieling, comprised of placards with phoney fashion-industry labeling designed to prod your social conscience, such as “Made in Italy, Sewed by Chinese”. This reminded me a little of the Xu Bing installation Backbone, seen during my visit to LACMA, which used the visual cue of tobacco stencils to focus our attention on the plight of workers in the tobacco industry.

Other works include a baffling hotel-themed installation by Hua Mao First Floor Collective, and a deeply unwholesome film with zombies by Cao Fei (b. 1978). I confess I was left underwhelmed by the Ai Weiwei contribution, a film called Ordos 100 (2012) that documents architects trying (and failing) to build a new city in inner Mongolia. I didn’t have time for a full viewing, but the pace felt slow and the action stilted.

Overall, a show that I really wanted to see but then wasn’t fully convinced by.

OVADA, Oxford
17 July to 9 August 2015 (now closed)

You can view the film Ordos 100 on YouTube.

Above: Cai Yuan, Untitled, 2015. Acrylic on cardboard. Photo: SF.

Below: Cai Yuan, ISMS Series, 2015. Oil on canvas. Photo: SF.
cai yuan isms series
Below: Wessieling,
Labels of Desire, 2015 (left of photo). Laser cut and etched MDF. Photo: SF.
wessieling labels of desire
Below: Wessieling,
Labels of Desire, 2015 (detail). Laser cut and etched MDF. Photo: SF.
wessieling labels of desire detail v2
Below: Sun Yi, Untitled, 2015. Wires and nails on board. Photo: SF.
sun yi untitled

Travels in California, part 6: Xu Bing at LACMA

brush xu bing

We had limited time at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) so our visit was short but very sweet – in particular, this show by contemporary Chinese artist Xu Bing (b. 1955), which was the first thing we saw. I covered the Xu Bing show at the Ashmolean in 2013, so it was fascinating to spend more time in front of his work and to see it in a different presentation.

As before, there was a strong emphasis on the written word and actions related to it – writing, printing, calligraphy. For instance, a series of very striking images based on the hand holding the brush, in two sets of woodblock prints, Holding the Brush and Softening the Brush.

But where the Ashmolean focused on works on paper, LACMA offers a more diverse body of work. There is a piece from his Silkwork Book series, for which he raised live silkworms and made them spin silk over books instead of into cocoons. The book in question is a model book of calligraphy by famous scholar Yan Zhengqing (709-785).

The installation Backbone, taking up most of one wall, builds a text from words found in 19th century tobacco stencils, printed on cigarette paper. In an interesting collaboration, the words were used by René Balcer to create a free-verse blues poem, honouring the African American women who worked in the tobacco industry. You listen to one while viewing the other.

Perhaps the most spell-binding work here is The Character of Characters, an animation that portrays the evolution and simplification of Chinese characters, explored in tandem with social and political developments in China itself.

This brings to an end my series of posts on the fabulous Asian art that I saw in California.  If you are interested, do take a look at my earlier posts on three exhibitions at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco – Seduction, The Printer’s Eye, and Tradition on Fire.  There are also my before and after posts on the Japanese tea garden in San Francisco, and my post on surprise Korean ceramics where I least expected to see them.

The Language of Xu Bing
LACMA, Los Angeles, CA
20 December 2014 to 26 July 2015

You can view part of the animation on YouTube.

Above: Xu Bing, detail from Holding the Brush, 1996. Woodblock print. The Carolyn Hsu & René Balcer Collection. Image at

Chinese animations by Sun Xun

sun xun 21 KE image

Sun Xun (b.1980) is a Chinese artist specializing in animation.  His animation 21 KE [21 Grams] (2010, 27 mins) is currently running at the Hayward Gallery, along with several shorter animations, including Requiem (2007, 7.21 mins) and Some Actions Which Haven’t Been Defined Yet in the Revolution (2011, 12.22 mins).

Sun Xun draws his images by hand and films them frame by frame, creating flickering effects and giving the work a volatile, organic quality.  The visual style varies each time, from the slick oil-based colors of Requiem to the gritty monochrome woodcuts of Some Actions.  21 KE is different again: the animation is in black and white, but the rendering is much smoother, giving a greater sense of realism.

The animations are pretty short on narrative but allude to political change and upheaval in China’s recent history.  21 KE inhabits a kind of late 19th century fantasy world, Chinese-style.  I was reminded of the Joan Aiken books I read as a child, or even the Philip Pullman books: top hats, steam trains, flying machines.  This made it fun to watch, although undeniably there are darker moments.  The capitalism of 19th century Europe and 21st century China are not so far apart.

Sun Xun: Yesterday is Tomorrow
Hayward Gallery, London
16 January to 23 February 2014

Above: Sun Xun, 21 KE [21 Grams], 2010. Animation with sound. Image: the artist, and ShanghART Gallery, at

Yayoi Kusama at Tate Modern

The Yayoi Kusama retrospective finished in June but I feel somehow bound to include it: compared with the Yoko Ono show, it seemed crazy and eye-popping.  We might debate whether this is “Asian Art” but I shall be inclusive.  Both came from wealthy Japanese backgrounds: Kusama’s family was in seed-production, Ono’s in banking.  Both came to prominence in the 1960s and spent time in New York, although Kusama returned to Japan in 1973.  The Kusama show was very large: fourteen galleries, six decades of work, media ranging from paint and video to soft sculpture and macaroni (yes, macaroni).  I was captivated above all by the installation Infinity Mirrored Room – Filled with the Brilliance of Life.  A walkway leads through a darkened room, every surface a mirror.  The space is filled with tiny lights, reflected to infinity and changing colour constantly.  It is like a magical seascape at night – enchanting, exhilarating.

Yayoi Kusama
Tate Modern, London
9 February 2012 to 5 June 2012 (now closed)

See also the Guardian’s brilliant photo series Seeing Spots: Yayoi Kusama Exhibition at Tate Modern