Martial Arts

Clements explains how, during the Qing dynasty (1644-1912), government censorship and oppression was so invasive that it’s difficult to distinguish historical fact from fiction. “Add to that the damage done to the record by the hundred years of upheavals after the Opium Wars, and then the damage done again in the Cultural Revolution, and there are vast swathes of Chinese martial arts history that were only really curated and maintained by, say, the Hong Kong movie industry,” he adds.

Over at National Geographic, Dominic Bliss interviews me about the history of the martial arts.

Seagull Diner (2006)

Sachie (Satomi Kobayashi) is a Japanese woman inexplicably opening a café in Helsinki, where she thinks the Finns will like Japanese food because they like salmon. After a long month without any business, her first customer, Tommi (Jarkko Niemi) is an anime weeb with a terrible taste in T-shirts, who wants her to write out the lyrics to the Gatchaman theme. Unable to remember the lyrics (because this is an alternate universe where the internet doesn’t exist), she buttonholes a stranger in a Helsinki bookstore. Midori (Hairi Katagiri), knows the song, but is an oddball who has randomly picked Finland on a map, and now has nowhere to stay. Sachie offers her a place to live, and the two women muddle through at the café.

They are soon joined by Masako (Masako Motai), a third Japanese woman who has come to Helsinki to celebrate her “freedom” after twenty years as unpaid carer for her ailing parents. She is the only character whose back-story is really announced in any detail – whatever has brought the others to Finland is kept discreetly off-screen. They are three characters in search merely of acceptance and belonging, finding it in the oddest of places, and clinging, curiously, to a desire to be anywhere but Japan.

“A strange man just gave me a cat,” Masako announces. “So now I have to stay.”

It’s only when I write out the synopsis that I realise just how little happens in Naoko Ogigami’s feel-good film, Kamome Shokudo. The Japanese ladies experiment with new menu choices, and slowly win over the reserved Finnish passers-by in a Helsinki street. These include Liisa (Tarja Markus), an abandoned housewife who has to be carried home after collapsing in a drunken haze. Masako, meanwhile, has lost her luggage, and turns up in an increasingly garish selection of Marimekko dresses while she is waiting for her clothes to show up. Midori doodles some awful pictures on the menu, and Masako goes looking for mushrooms in the forest.

Whereas Master Cheng (2019) was a Finnish exercise in luring Chinese visitors, Seagull Diner is a very Japanese take on the Nordic countries – I am tagging it with my #finnfilms watchathon of every Finnish film ever made, but it is technically a Japanese film that happens to have been shot on location in Helsinki. Ogigami’s characters fall in love with Helsinki’s quaint streets and seaside cycle paths, its city markets and melancholy locals, and, presumably with a surfeit of product placement, since the café is packed with Finnish design classics. There’s no real jeopardy or crisis, just a slow infusion of joy as the ladies experiment with local ingredients, refine their menu, and eventually proclaim that the diner is a success, because it is full of happy Finns.

Ogigami’s script boldly dispenses with much of the whys of her leading ladies’ backstory, taking it as given that they are all fleeing from something, and simply seeking a harmonious, happy life in the land where the Moomins come from. Much in the spirit of My Neighbour Totoro, it’s a resolution that doesn’t see the need for conflict. They remain in a remarkably compact series of locations – huge tracts of the film pass in single locked-off shots in the café or Sachie’s flat, plus what looks like a single day’s shooting down in Helsinki harbour, a bike ride around Töölö, and a pick-up at the airport.

Matti (Aki Kaurismäki regular Markku Peltola) shows up to mansplain how to make good coffee. Apparently, you should stick your finger in it and make a wish, which explains an awful lot about Finnish coffee. He leaves a package of coffee that has been passed through the digestive tract of a civet cat. The Japanese women end up making coffee that is literally made of animal shit, and telling each other it’s lovely. For Kaurismäki fans, this was sacrilege, but for an entire generation of middle-aged Japanese women, marginalised and ignored, it was a wake-up call that they, like Sachie, could do whatever the hell they liked. Or in Sachie’s words: “not do the things I didn’t want to.”

Despite premiering in a single Japanese cinema with very little fanfare, it would become the fifth highest-grossing Japanese film in the year of its release. More than a decade late, it remains a potent soft-power ambassador luring Japanese tourists to Finland.

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland.

Christian Sorcerers on Trial

Over at All the Anime, I review a new book about the 1827 Osaka Incident.

“…a bunch of deluded commoners who thought they had joined an underground religious sect, but had actually signed up for a series of parlour tricks, fortune-telling sessions with a local medium, and blood-letting rituals centred around a magic painting called The Lord of Heaven….They might have been Christians, but they might have been nutters, or they might have been Buddhists, or some sort of hybrid like the Taiping rebels who would rise up a generation later in China.”

“They discuss Christianity as if it were an ancient pandemic – a religious virus that has been carefully stamped out nearly 200 years earlier, with periodic outbreaks that have to be strictly monitored. We get a sense, in at least some of the comments, that some are gently questioning the statutes, wondering if it is really fair to impose regulations drawn up two centuries earlier upon contemporary people.”

Skiptrace (2016)

In press junkets for his previous film Chinese Zodiac, much was made of Jackie Chan’s “retirement” from action films, somewhat to the actor’s chagrin. The 62-year-old Chan was obliged to run damage control on his own career, pleading that he was certainly going to make more films, but that his advancing years made him less likely to perform his own stunts or do anything mental. But you’d be forgiven for thinking it was business as usual in Skiptrace, in which Chan can be seen fighting his way through a Russian factory, leaping from a collapsing Hong Kong slum, and dangling from a man’s trousers on a perilous ravine zipline. It’s only when you look closer that you see the occasional stuntman substitution, or that Chan’s co-star Johnny Knoxville, a man famous for shooting himself out of a cannon or eating a goat’s testicles on many a Jackass, is volunteering to take some of the harder knocks.

As Chan’s foil Connor Watts, Knoxville initially seems to be appearing in two different movies, on the run from the Russian mob, and framed for murder by a Macao casino syndicate. Benny (Chan) is the weary Hong Kong cop sent to bring in the fugitive Watts, unaware that he is carrying a cellphone that would solve Benny’s decade-long quest to unmask the criminal kingpin known as the Matador. For reasons not entirely clear (if they can cross the border, they can surely get on a plane), the impecunious pair is obliged to travel by land from Irkutsk to Hong Kong, with a travelogue narrative that focuses almost entirely on either end of the 5000-kilometre journey, ignoring most of the central Chinese locations they would have had to cross in favour of the ethnic hinterlands of Inner Mongolia and the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.

Chan and Knoxville traverse a bunch of picturesque settings – a lantern festival, cormorant fishing on the Yangtze, the mountains of Guilin, entire mountainsides of rice terraces – all as a backdrop to the formulaic knockabout action that has made Chan a global superstar. Critics in America have been quick to site this film in Chan’s late period in Hollywood, alongside other foreign buddy franchises like Rush Hour and Shanghai Noon. But Finnish director Renny Harlin has managed a remarkable evocation of the mood of Chan’s Cantonese movies of the early-1990s, such as Cityhunter and Police Story 3, when he was working with Wong Jing and Stanley Tong. Harlin’s film (or more aptly, its script) also inherits many of the flaws of that era – underwritten female characters, plotting that takes itself about as seriously as the clowning action sequences, and a condescending attitude towards anyone who isn’t ethnic-majority Han Chinese. The characters plough through local colour like tourists on a speedboat, inadvertently asserting privileged disdain, even as they document diversity. One wonders what the reaction would have been if he had made a similar road movie traversing the United States, and how various local communities would have reacted. Hahaha, the Navajo are all drunken brawlers; heeheehee, the Sioux are toothless swindlers; hohoho, those Negros sure love a good sing-song!

Parts of the film seem to have been flung together against the clock, including a couple of moments in which the actors shrug off sudden drizzle, and a closing act in which two scenes appear to  have been included out of order. Jokes about Chan’s inability to swim might seem tasteless in the light of the death by drowning mid-production of cinematographer Chan Kwok-hung. A recurring jump-cut motif propels the narrative along by discarding large chunks of exposition and development, but also papering thinly over plot holes. At least two key elements of the story – justice for the murderer Victor Wong (Winston Chau), and Knoxville’s shotgun marriage – are revealed as self-resolving problems for which the actions of the characters are entirely redundant. But this, too, is a faithful evocation of the breakneck pace of pre-Handover Hong Kong action films; Harlin’s movie is a note-perfect pastiche of Chan’s 1990s heyday, opening with a manga-in-motion series of comics cutaways, introducing the cast in a pop-art style. Fun veritably seeps out through all this movie’s cracks, from an opening sequence in which Chan initiates an attack on a bad guys’ hide-out, armed only with a bra and negligee, to a sequence in which Fan Bingbing tries and largely fails to conceal how much she is enjoying a fight scene in which she takes out her attackers with a taser and a fish tank.

There are several easter eggs for certain sectors of the audience. I failed to spot the Finnish flag that Harlin habitually hides in his films, but did note the snarling cameo for wrestling star Eve Torres Garcia, and the oh-so-meta moment when Knoxville, obliged to sing his way past an honour guard of tribal girls, chooses to belt out “Please Understand My Heart”, a Jackie Chan hit from 1991. The gangsters in pursuit, on the other hand, mumble their way through a half-hearted rendition of “You Are My Little Apple”, the novelty hit of 2014. And in an utterly bizarre musical interlude, Chan whips up a bunch of Mongols into a rendition of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep”.

Meanwhile, in an odd moment of political cheekiness, Chan’s character expresses his desire to retire and run an alpaca farm, noting that these animals are a symbol of freedom. That they may be, but they are also a notorious icon of Chinese internet dissidence, striking an oddly right-on note for a man who has spent the last decade in alliance and cooperation with the authorities.

Strangest of all, despite a worldwide release in dozens of countries, Skiptrace has yet to appear on UK movie schedules, nor at time of writing has it been submitted to the BBFC. Harlin’s status as a local boy saw his film released in Finland last weekend, where I sat amid an audience of usually stoic Finns, laughing their tits off at was surely their first-ever Jackie Chan film. You can see this movie in the United States, in Holland, in Singapore… but it seems strangely absent from UK schedules. Is a distributor saving it for the Christmas feel-good rush, or has its kitchen-sink assembly of kicks in the goolies, an Adele sing-along, on-screen horse-poo  and white-water rafting on inflatable pig-skins failed to include anything that will interest a British audience? Something for everybody, even the Finns… but not the British…?

Jonathan Clements is the author of Mannerheim: President, Soldier, Spy, which is also a road trip about two bickering buddies, forced to cross China undercover. This article originally appeared on the Funimation UK site in 2016, but has since been deleted.


“Hideo Sekigawa’s Hiroshima (1953) uses the tense normalcy of everyday life as a framing device to retell the story of the city’s bombing, not merely the explosion and immediate aftermath, but the stunned reaction of the Japanese authorities to the utmost devastation of a ‘new type of bomb.’ It is plainly intended as a didactic experience, focussing in particular on the young victims of the attack – even its title is written in easy-to-read hiragana, evoking a childish incomprehension of the forces at work elsewhere. To truly appreciate it, however, one needs to understand the politicking and arguments around its release – refused exhibition by many 1950s cinemas, it was buried at the box office, ostensibly for its unwelcome engagement with issues that Cold War Japan was still trying to suppress.”

Over at All the Anime, I review the new blu-ray of Hideo Sekigawa’s Hiroshima.


To The Distant Observer

The cameraman is in my living room. The director is in Brighton or somewhere like that, skyping in on a laptop perched on top of a stack of books so that we have the same eyeline. COVID-19 doesn’t prevent the recording of my appearance on Channel Five’s forthcoming history of the last thousand years in China, to be broadcast in the autumn.