The 2017 New York Asian Film Festival is underway, and we at ComicsVerse will be there to share all our favorites from the fest.

JAPANESE GIRLS NEVER DIE and SOUL MATE tackle issues of sexism and misogyny as they relate to changing contemporary ideas about the virtue and value of female friendships, with varying results.

Warning: This article contains major spoilers for both films.

JAPANESE GIRLS NEVER DIE

In JAPANESE GIRLS NEVER DIE, the disappearance of Haruko Azumi goes viral when graffiti artist Kilroy uses her image to make a big statement.

Director Daigo Matsui’s latest cinematic foray is a dichotomous disaster that chaotically shifts between being refrained and being overt. And perhaps that’s exactly what the director intended — a protest against the conventions of cinema and modern Japanese society.

JAPANESE GIRLS NEVER DIE warns against the pervasive sexism that festers beneath polite Japanese society and the misogyny that normalizes such gendered interactions.

Matsui accomplishes this by weaving together three loosely connected stories. The first is the story of Aina, an aimless 20-year-old seeking connection through whatever shallow means she can. The second is the story of Haruko, a 27-year-old office worker trapped in a joyless cycle of sexual harassment, domestic disturbance, and unrequited love. The third is the story of a nameless gang of high school girls that terrorize the masculine streets of Tokyo like the manifest fury of all womankind.

JAPANESE GIRLS NEVER DIE bristles with a frenetic energy that oftentimes overwhelms the film’s potential and exceeds the scope of Matsui’s directorial capabilities — although not without producing outstanding moments in between.

Yu Aoi (Haruko) and Mitsuki Takahata (Aina) both shine within the narrow confines of the script. Matsui’s focus was never any of the individual characters, but rather on the whole of Japanese society. He turns his lens on a society that keeps Japanese women subservient to generations of buffoonish, entitled men. Matsui skillfully paints the troubled landscape modern women in Japan face. Systemic sexism and misogyny keep women disenfranchised and unable to operate independently. At the same time, that same perverted philosophy is normalized and made congenial by the very group it debilitates.

WATCH:  Directors Lee Joon-ik and Shin Yeon-shick discuss DONGJU: THE PORTRAIT OF A POET.

Whether by ignorance or by lack of options, women like Haruko and Aina are passive players in their own oppression. Haruko’s mild manners get her nowhere in life or in love. She is cognizant of her culture’s blatant disregard toward her happiness but can find no logical way out. In a rare moment of clarity, viewers are treated to Haruko and her colleague Hiroko joking about their current predicament in a scene that is both light-hearted and extremely disheartening.

Aina, too, falls victim to a society that views women as disposable sex commodities with a shelf life that spans uncomfortably young. Unlike Haruko, however, Aina feigns ignorance and reacts with unbound energy and enthusiasm; her inhibition, wild mood swings, and obnoxious personality are more akin to a 13-year-old trying to let her crush know that she likes him in the most obnoxious way possible than a woman in her early 20s. One can’t help but feel as though this is, to an extent, a survival mechanism against a culture that unabashedly celebrates sexual youth and immaturity.

The high school delinquents, on the other hand, are a metafictional figment of Matsui’s imagination. They symbolize his hope for the next generation of Japanese girls — combative to the harsh realities of Japanese society. While this idea raises some eyebrows with its questionable fetishization of women as cute harbingers of destruction, I applaud Matsui’s clumsy but well-meaning attempt.

READ: Revisit the wacky adventures of THE MERMAID, one of China’s breakout films last year and a NYAFF 2016 favorite.

The film’s amateurish first half almost overshadows its scathing commentary. Fortunately, Matsui delivers a feminist punch straight to the Japanese patriarchy’s groin with an unexpected ending that makes JAPANESE GIRLS NEVER DIE worth discussing. In an ending so satisfying it screams hallucinatory wish fulfillment, Aina discovers a happily “missing” Haruko on her way to the beach, suggesting Haruko faked her own disappearance all along. Much like Haruko, Aina has exhausted her capacity to forgive the men who mistreat her. Her days running with Kilroy leave her with a tangible connection to Haruko, prompting her to join the missing woman.

Female friendship is what ultimately saves Haruko and Aina from the vicious, dehumanizing cycle society seems hellbent on perpetuating. There is no male savior nor any male involvement at all. Women alone have the power to save themselves, although perhaps not through conventional (Haruko) or polite (high school delinquents) means. Not that men shouldn’t contribute to the solution, but that, frankly speaking, they aren’t a necessity. Women, by supporting one another, can step out of the shadows and forge a path all for themselves.

SOUL MATE

SOUL MATE lets us know early on the guiding mantra behind the story of Qiyue and Ansheng: life is full of unpleasant things for girls.

A friendship that is predestined and transcends is the basic premise of Derek Tsang’s masterfully crafted solo debut, SOUL MATE. In the film, Ansheng’s uneventful life is disturbed when her estranged best friend, Qiyue, begins publishing a novel about their friendship online. Ansheng must grapple with her complicated history with Qiyue as her past catches up with her.

Stripped down, SOUL MATE is about two women who drift in and out of each other’s lives to bittersweet effect. With a premise that could easily devolve into a sordid tale about the amorous relationship between two women, SOUL MATE defies expectations with a meditative and nuanced script that places Tsang at the forefront of Chinese and Hong Kong cinema. The film is imbued with the necessary raw dramatics by career-defining performances from Sandra Ma (Qiyue) and Zhou Dongyu (Ansheng).

CLICK: BIRDSHOT and THE TRUTH BENEATH are two of our favorite films from this year’s NYAFF selection. Find out why.

Life is bent on separating Qiyue and Ansheng. Both women must overcome many emotional hurdles to find their way back to each other, time and time again. Societal and familial pressures cement Qiyue’s desire to live a respectable life in domestic bliss with boyfriend Su Jiaming. That decision, however, is in direct conflict with Ansheng’s rebellious drifter spirit. Ansheng, with no family or real educational prospects, eschews a traditional life in favor of traveling the world. Although the two women couldn’t be more different, one thing remains clear: they wish to share their lives together.

And while the film sets up a classic love triangle, it proves to be nothing more than a red herring. Tsang lets the true conflict of the film burn slowly until the final third of the film.

“I wanted you to come home to me. I wanted you to choose me, each time,”

Qiyue says to Su Jiaming, but it is clear this line is meant for Ansheng. The men of the film are pawns in the decade-long chess game Qiyue and Ansheng play. The film never gives them much agency outside the minor roles they play in each woman’s lives. Much like in JAPANESE GIRLS NEVER DIE, it’s the relationship between the women that proves to be of true value.

LEARN: TEN YEARS takes us 10 years into Hong Kong’s future — and it’s pretty bleak.

The final act of the film is where Tsang really shows off his full skill. With an arsenal of cinematic tools at his disposal, Tsang takes SOUL MATE to new narrative and visual heights. Sandra Ma’s occasional narration evokes voyeuristic intimacy for lasting impact. As a testament to Tsang’s skill as a storyteller, he effortlessly blends fact and fiction to save this film from generic tragi-romance traditions.

Of course, few directors are a creative island. Standing behind Tsang is an equally talented team of cinematographers, editors, and composers. Stunning settings and lush lensing make each frame a feast for the eyes, credit going to Pollock and Yu. And the editing team of Hui, Dianshi, Shaolin, and Xiang-Yuan making each scene strike an emotional chord with major reverberations.

In the end, Ansheng trades in her wandering ways for rooted bliss so that Qiyue may finally have the adventure she always wanted, whether real or not. After one particularly devastating tragedy, Qiyue’s mother says,

“The truth is, no matter what path a girl chooses, she will suffer. Let’s hope my daughter is the exception.”

The film has come full circle. Life is indeed full of suffering for girls, but that doesn’t mean we need to accept it. SOUL MATE reminds us that true happiness must be won by tooth and by nail, wrought out of agony and out of joy.

Check out the rest of ComicsVerse’s coverage of the 2017 New York Asian Film Festival!

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