A Review of Bunpro A Valuable Companion App for Grammar Studies and More
August 9, 2022 • words written by Ian J. Battaglia • Art by Ian J. Battaglia
For many Japanese learners out there, grammar study begins the old fashioned way: in a textbook. In the popular beginner textbook series Genki for example, the authors present learners with a dialogue in Japanese, and then break down the grammar points used alongside the vocabulary to help learners better understand it. While this is a great way of familiarizing yourself with some of the standard grammar concepts in Japanese, it can be a little difficult to know when to review them, and their usage in contexts other than the dialogue you're familiar with.
Bunpro attempts to solve this problem by applying the popular and proven-effective spaced repetition study technique to grammar. Spaced Repetition Systems , or SRS, is probably a familiar concept to many language learners as it's often used to help memorize vocabulary, like with Tofugu's own WaniKani and the ever-popular Anki . It's something I've described previously as almost like a multiplier of your own ability to memorize information. Commonly used for building vocabulary, Bunpro's novel utilization of this powerful method with what's known as "cloze deletion" — which is more or less fill in the blank (more on this later!) — grammar flashcards aims to make grammar points stick much longer than just a simple glance through a textbook.
So how well does it actually work? That's exactly what I aimed to find out in practice. With a range of both fun and convenient integrations, the ability to utilize the app for multiple different study methods and aims, and frequent updates, Bunpro can be a highly useful component of any Japanese learner's study routine.
Cloze Deletion and Progressive Sentences
Grammar and vocab, study, lessons, paths, and decks, study in-depth, reading practice, integrations, a work in progress, is it worth adding bunpro to my study routine, what is bunpro.
Bunpro is a spaced repetition software designed for studying Japanese grammar and vocabulary. It's primarily a web-based app, though there are alpha versions of mobile apps for both iOS and Android (as these are incomplete, your mileage in using them may vary). Bunpro is available for a subscription fee after a 30-day free trial, at either $5/month, $50/year, or a single $150 payment for lifetime access.
So what do you get for your money? Access to a powerful and flexible SRS, designed to work regardless of if you're a self-studier looking for a bit more structure, or someone who wants to use Bunpro as the center of their grammar study.
After signing up, you'll be directed to your dashboard. On this page, you can see how many grammar and vocabulary reviews you have due, a prompt to study new grammar, some stats like a forecast of upcoming reviews, and a chart of previous reviews, personal stats like your current streak and days studied, and finally some of the recent posts on their popular forum.
There's also a navigation bar up top with a few more links to the pages below:
Finally, there's a deep settings page, which allows you to tweak everything from how much furigana is shown, a menu to tell Bunpro which textbook you're using, how reviews should work, and more. You can also choose to opt into the beta version of Bunpro, meaning you'll get access to the latest features while they're still being tested. While Bunpro doesn't require the deep setup of something like Anki, it's well worth it for you to go through these settings to make sure things are configured in the way that works best for you.
Bunpro uses spaced repetition to help reinforce the brain's ability to memorize things long-term.
At its core, Bunpro is an SRS. This means it uses the technique of spaced repetition to help reinforce the brain's ability to memorize things long-term, rather than just something you're likely to forget. Most commonly, this technique is performed with flashcards, which is known as cued recall : you're given a cue for something, maybe a word written in kanji, for example, and are asked to recall the rest of the information, such as the reading and definition. Then, depending on how well you were able to recall that information, the interval between the next time you review that information is adjusted. If you remembered it, the interval is increased, and if you didn't, the interval is decreased. The aim is to get you to recall the information just before forgetting it, helping cement it into your long-term memory.
While that's the general definition, in practice SRS comes in many forms. For example, you could technically do spaced repetition study all by yourself, with a set of flashcards and a calendar. However, it's much much more convenient to let a computer do all the heavy lifting for you. Additionally, different applications will have different intervals, and different ways to adjust them. For example, Anki allows you to customize intervals and offers four different options to adjust them (but check out my Anki review for why you might only want to use two of them!)
There are many different ways to test your knowledge and just as many tools to accomplish just that. Let's take a look at how BunPro stacks up with the other apps I've mentioned.
Bunpro asks you to type in the answers to example sentences with a fill-in-the-blanks gap.
When it comes to Anki, the app only asks you to recall the information, and grade yourself on how well you did, which has both benefits and drawbacks. WaniKani asks users to type in answers, which takes a little more time but prevents you from marking yourself correct if you didn't actually know what you're being tested on. Though the implementation is a little different, both of these methods fall under the cued recall technique I mentioned earlier.
Like WaniKani, Bunpro also asks you to type in the answers by using something known as cloze deletion or a cloze test. You're given example sentences with a fill-in-the-blanks gap. You need to type in the correct grammar point, for example, a verb conjugated into a specific grammatical form, or a common expression, to complete the sentence.
While both are valid and valuable methods of study, in a 1989 study , psychologist John Glover found the cloze deletion form of cued recall more effective for long-term learning than a simple recognition test (for example, having to pick the correct answer from a list, like with multiple choice questions).
Here's an example review question from Bunpro. They present you with the sentence: 家具を買うなら、このお店___。Pressing space will give you a hint, which is a concise definition of the grammar point they're looking for. If you still don't know, hitting space again will give you a full English translation of the sentence, with the missing grammar point defined in blue. In the sentence above, the grammar point they're looking for is にかぎる or "nothing better than," making the sentence, "If you want to buy furniture, there's no shop better than this one."
Seeing Japanese grammar and vocabulary used in context is extremely valuable for deepening your understanding.
Personally, I think seeing Japanese grammar and vocabulary used in context is extremely valuable for deepening your understanding. While testing yourself on the one-to-one translation of vocabulary has its place in the learning process when usage is self-explanatory and straightforward (knowing 雪 means "snow" gives you a pretty complete picture of its usage), for more complicated terms and grammar points you can't really get achieve a deep understanding without seeing them in context. Of course, Bunpro takes it a step further than simply seeing a grammar point in context as it asks you to practice using it, albeit in a focused manner.
Bunpro does a good job of not only varying the sentences, but making sure to show progressive sentences.
On the flipside, these example sentences initially drew my concern when going into Bunpro. As I mentioned in my Anki review , I'm a bit wary of learning one hyper-specific cue or context. For instance, learning to recognize the context of a single example sentence, as opposed to achieving a broader or more holistic understanding of what you're aiming to study. Luckily, Bunpro specifically works to alleviate this issue. While you will see the same sentences more than once, Bunpro does a good job of not only varying the sentences, but making sure to show progressive sentences, either one that showcases a different usage for the grammar point than the one you already know, or a sentence that builds off other grammar points you've learned.
For example, consider the phrase 込む, which can be used as a suffix or helper verb. It can mean both something like "to enter into," as well as "to be deep in something," or "to remain in a certain state." To help convey both of these usages, they give a variety of different example sentences, such as 「ピンを壁に押し込む 」or "to push a pin into a wall," and 「そんなに考え込まなくてもいいよ。 」which can be translated as "It's okay to not think so deeply about this." This not only keeps things fresh but helps ensure you're getting more of a complete picture than simply memorizing one specific line.
A Versatile Tool
Bunpro's greatest strength is its ability to fit any learner's needs.
Perhaps the best thing about Bunpro is the flexibility it offers. This flexibility doesn't end with progressive sentences, either. Whether you're looking for a way to brush up on some difficult grammar, or an app for all your grammar and vocabulary study, Bunpro has a lot to offer. However, it is an app still in development, which can lead to some slight issues or lack of polish in some areas, but that also means it's constantly being updated and improved. The developers have a blog where they detail some of the recent changes and improvements, as well as listen to user feedback and discuss what's coming in the future.
Bunpro's greatest strength is its ability to fit any learner's needs. Regardless of if you want a companion app for a formal class, or are a dedicated self-studier, Bunpro is here for you.
As I mentioned, despite the name, Bunpro isn't limited to studying grammar. They've recently added vocabulary reviews as well. As a burgeoning feature, it still has a ways to go, but the initial report is promising.
Bunpro has a couple of thousand vocabulary terms from the JLPT N5 and N4 levels.
So far, Bunpro has a couple of thousand vocabulary terms from the JLPT N5 and N4 levels. You can navigate to these via the search page, clicking on words in example sentences (where available), and by deck, a new way of grouping study items. For example, there's a deck of N5 vocabulary which contains 1100 vocabulary items. You can bookmark this deck, use the "learn" feature to start studying the terms, and then add them to your SRS queue. From there, reviews work like Anki, asking you to simply grade yourself, though on Bunpro there are only two buttons to choose from, labeled "Known" or "Unknown."
On the blog, the developers have detailed the intent to make every word in every sentence clickable and to continue adding vocabulary to their database, with the goal of over 7000 words added by the end of 2022. Since it's still in planning I don't want to put too much emphasis on this feature, though I've been impressed by the updates and features the Bunpro team has added to the project since its launch.
Still, grammar is the star of the show. When you go to the page for any particular grammar point you're given the conjugation or structure, explanations of its usage, synonymous grammar points, warnings on common mistakes or nuance, and copious example sentences. While these explanations don't really rival something like the Dictionary of Japanese Grammar series, they're a more than fine starting point, giving you both a basic foundation, as well as the information to go a bit deeper.
As I mentioned before, Bunpro's example sentences help convey multiple usages of any particular point, adding to the depth of your understanding. For me, it's this depth that elevates Bunpro from a simple beginner resource. Comparing and contrasting similar grammar points, and walking through seemingly correct but deceptively-ungrammatical usages is unfortunately not as common a practice for beginner learners as it should be. It's this sort of nuance that can help students build a foundation of Japanese the right way.
Bunpro has a ton of options to suit your learning style.
Now, how are you going to decide what grammar points to review? Well, it's really up to you! Bunpro has a ton of options to suit your learning style, and while I love the flexibility, the overlapping pathways are a bit clunky. This is one of my main complaints with the app, actually. In practice, I think most learners will find whichever means of accessing the grammar relevant to them is most convenient and stick with it. Luckily, progress is saved across the site, so if you start learning at your own pace and want to switch to a Path, there's no penalty for doing so.
The "Study" feature will show you new grammar patterns you haven't learned yet from your target level.
After signing up, you can set your target JLPT level under settings. Even if you don't intend to take the JLPT anytime soon, it's a helpful framework for grouping the different grammar and vocabulary as you embark on your Japanese learning journey. From there, the simplest way into the grammar is using the "Study" feature. With this, Bunpro will show you new grammar patterns you haven't learned yet from your target level, anywhere from 1-10 new grammar points a day, which you can also configure in the settings. After you read through the explanations, these new grammar points are automatically added to your review queue, allowing you to progress through the JLPT grammar points at your preferred pace. More on the "Study" feature a bit later!
"Lessons" is basically an index page with every grammar point Bunpro offers.
Next is "Lessons." This is basically an index page with every grammar point Bunpro offers from JLPT N5 to N1. Here, you can freely browse the available grammar points and add the items you want to review. I think this is a great option for learners who have already worked through at least one textbook and want to help strengthen their understanding of a grammar point or two before they move on. Of course, you should use this at your own discretion. While it's possible to add every N5 grammar point to your queue, for example, that would only lead you to burnout.
Paths allow learners who are working through a textbook to use Bunpro like a companion app.
The final two methods are some of the most powerful, and also go hand in hand. These are "Paths'' and "Decks." Paths allow learners who are working through a textbook to use Bunpro like a companion app, automatically grouping the grammar points as they are in the textbook. Bunpro offers paths for the 2nd Edition of Genki I and II, みんなの日本語 I and II, Tobira, Tae Kim's Grammar Guide, and An Integrated Approach to Intermediate Japanese. This is a fantastic feature that allows you to harness the power of SRS reviews for the content you're already familiar with in addition to the new grammar explanation to help deepen your knowledge.
Decks are like the evolution of the Paths feature.
Decks are like the evolution of the Paths feature. Like Paths, Decks group grammar in a number of different ways. There are decks for all of Bunpro's grammar from N5 to N1, and decks for N5 and N4 vocab. There are also deck forms of the textbook paths above, and new decks for the "Starter," "Elementary 1," and "Elementary 2" books of the Marugoto series, and books 1 and 2 of the Quartet series. Finally, there's a deck for Kansai-ben grammar and vocabulary as well.
Decks combine grammar and vocabulary reviews into one.
Wait, "grammar and vocabulary?" That's right, and that's the primary reason decks are so powerful: they combine grammar and vocabulary reviews into one. Right now, there are integrated decks of both vocabulary and grammar for both the 2nd and 3rd editions of Genki I, as well as all three Marugoto books, with more on the way.
This is huge for students as offering basically a companion app to some of the most popular textbooks makes getting started that much easier. I personally feel I wasted a lot of time early on in my Japanese studies, as I stagnated a bit while I tried my hardest to make sure I really had a good grasp on the basics. With this feature, Bunpro offers a high-quality, convenient way to help reinforce what you're learning, so there's no guessing if you've really locked in that grammar point or not.
So, how does the Study feature actually work in practice? The page shown is basically the same as when you look up any grammar point on its own, though you're taken through each tab one by one. It's broken into three tabs, "Details," "Examples," and "Resources."
From there, similar to WaniKani, once you're finished taking in all the information from the new grammar points, you're given a mini-quiz on just those points. These are the same as the regular reviews, meaning cloze deletion fill-in-the-blanks example sentences. These grammar points are then added to your standard review queue.
While it's not a perfect system, it's a good option if you want to learn all the grammar points offered on Bunpro at a steady pace without having to go through to pick what to add.
Readings are akin to the short dialogue sections you'd find in the Genki beginner textbook series.
Rounding out the recent additions to Bunpro is the Reading Practice section. Available under the "Content" drop-down menu on the navigation bar, clicking this takes users to an index page with a number of different readings grouped by JLPT level. These aren't graded readers, exactly; they're more akin to the short dialogue sections you'd find in the Genki beginner textbook series. Additionally, the page is simply an index with all their excerpts listed from N5 to N2, leaving it up to you to pick what you want to read. You can mark items off as "read," but I wish Bunpro was a bit more advanced about recommending level-appropriate content.
The excerpts aren't especially long or engaging, but Bunpro makes up for it with the wealth of options afforded to learners.
I've written before about how important I feel reading practice is for improving your Japanese ability, and this is no exception. While the excerpts aren't quite as long or as engaging as some of the other beginner reading material I've come across, Bunpro makes up for it with the wealth of options afforded to learners. There are toggle switches to make the text vertical rather than horizontal, as Japanese is usually written vertically. You can also add highlights to grammar, which can make it easier to break down sentences and learn the meaning of new grammar points in context (though these grammar points are clickable, which will show a popup with the information from the grammar page).
There are additional options to show notes, English translations, and toggle furigana. Each entry also has a corresponding discussion thread in the forum. Like the reading threads in the WaniKani forum , other users will ask questions and help break down some of the more complex points. Reading groups like this can really go a long way for your comprehension.
While these reading sections aren't perfectly integrated with the rest of the site (which is sort of obvious for how tucked-away they are in the menu), the intent is good. Unfortunately, after conferring with a native Japanese-speaking colleague of mine, we noticed the Japanese used can be a bit strange. It's not totally clear where these excerpts come from, but I certainly wouldn't use it as your only source of reading practice.
Speaking of integrations, in my mind they're what take Bunpro to the next level. Of course, it works just fine as a stand-alone application, but the way Bunpro manages to fit into any student's study routine makes it special. I've already mentioned it can act alongside textbook learning, provided you're studying from one of the textbook-aligned Bunpro Paths or Decks.
You can link your WaniKani account, which will tell Bunpro all the words you already know.
Additionally, you can link your WaniKani account, which will tell Bunpro all the words you already know. This makes it easy to not double-up on review of terms you're already familiar with and avoids the issue of having two separate SRS intervals or flashcards covering the same items. It also allows you to dynamically show furigana based on your WaniKani level, hiding furigana for any words you don't know, and only showing them for ones you haven't studied before.
Despite its many positives, Bunpro is clearly a work in progress, which is both a good and a bad thing. On the plus side, they've made a number of key updates even just over the past year, such as adding vocabulary study, Paths, reading practice, and more. It's clear the developers have a lot of passion for this project, and want to make it the best tool it can be, regardless of how you want to use it. But there are some growing pains as well.
On the minor end, Bunpro just doesn't look that polished in all places. The dashboard has multiple, separate links that lead to the same places, and just generally some jagged edges here and there.
This overlap continues in other places. For instance, all the different methods of accessing the same grammar points. While things seem to be moving towards Decks, there's some lingering inconsistency that can cause confusion. I love that Bunpro is a tool that can fit anyone's study goals, but I wish it were a bit more streamlined.
Still, what's here is well worth the cost of admission. I'm a firm believer in reading widely to help cement your understanding of Japanese grammar and vocabulary in context, but even so, everyone has a number of sticking points. Bunpro has made it easy for me to review grammar I either haven't come across much in the wild or simply continue to make mistakes on.
If you're still just starting out, Bunpro is a super valuable tool to add the power of SRS and the confidence that you're making progress in your textbook study routine. I wish I had this when I first started studying Japanese!
That said, the focus is really on self-studiers. There's no assessment to see what level is appropriate for you, for example. Instead, if you're not just starting a new textbook or JLPT level from scratch, you have to go through and add the items you want to study to your queue, or mark off the items you already know as learned. Similarly for the reading practice section, which is sorted by level but doesn't take into account the information Bunpro already knows about your abilities.
While Bunpro isn't a one-stop shop for all your Japanese study needs, it's a fantastic companion to make studying grammar easier. From integrating the often-tricky grammar reviews into SRS, to supporting your textbook study, or simply brushing up on grammar points you can't quite get to stick, Bunpro should be in every Japanese learner's toolkit.
Ian’s Review 8/10
Bunpro is a valuable tool that can fit almost any Japanese learner’s needs. Whether you’re studying for the JLPT, just want to lock in some grammar you’ve studied before, or are a beginner looking to hit the ground running as you study alongside a textbook, Bunpro has got you covered. I applaud the developer’s consistent updates and passion, though there are definitely a few rough edges left along the way. In the past, I’ve found it difficult to review specific grammar points, but Bunpro makes it easy.
Bunpro by Bunpro
- Super flexible, regardless of how you'd like to use it
- Progressive example sentences and reviews to help convey grammatical nuance
- Powerful integrations take it to the next level
- Still a work in progress, so there are a few rough edges
- Overlapping study methods can be a bit confusing
- Not all the features flow perfectly with one another quite yet
Bunpro: number of daily reviews
Hi everyone I tried Bunpro out recently and am thinking of getting a subscription. I was looking at the SRS intervals which seem really similar to WK and trying to figure out approximately how many daily reviews I will end up with. I have around 200-250 reviews on WK and I would like to have a minimum number of reviews on Bunpro without going so slow that I don’t feel like I am making any progress at all. Could any regular Bunpro users chime in with approximately how many reviews they have in a day? Can I make reasonable progress in terms of actual grammar knowledge without going over 50 daily reviews?
I’m conscious of this number. As conscious I am with my wk dashboard number and my kitsun dashboard number.
I think this might be better suited in either the 文プロ(Bunpro) : New Grammar + Sale! - Japanese Grammar SRS Study Site thread or better yet, the BunPro forums .
Thanks a lot.
Yeah, you are right the Bunpro forums are a much better place to ask it. Don’t know why it didn’t occur to me; I guess the WK forum is the first place that comes to mind whenever I have any japanese related question.
You will probably get more answers on the BP forums, but I’ll give mine here. I find BP reviews more brain power consuming and I only have rather little time each day to dedicate to WK and BP, so I try to keep BP reviews around 10 a day (I also only do one review session per day). Right now I tend to do a big bunch of lessons/points once every 1.5 week or so, and then I’ll deal with those reviews until they get low again and do new lessons. But my schedule changes every couple of months for BP.
(For reference I keep my daily WK reviews to less than 100 for the whole day, as best I can.)
It does depend how fast you do lessons and how much you know already. I joined Bunpro with near zero grammar knowledge. I completed the n5 lessons in about 3 months, n4 in about 6 months and after another 6 months i am half way through n3 lessons. So thats maybe only doing 3-6 lessons a week? My accuracy is poor and I dont do reviews every day. If I do have a week where I can review every day I have about 30-50 reviews which I can normally do in under an hour. If i bunch them together I might have 150 reviews a week which will take several hours potentially. But for some reason they don’t pile up like wanikani reviews. Even if I do no reviews for 2 weeks I still only have 150ish reviews. Also if I do them every day my speed and accuracy is much better
Bunpro tells you how many reviews you will have the next day on the home page / your profile. Don’t do new lessons if that number feels too high for you already. In general, you’ll always need to stop doing lessons for a few days on Bunpro if you don’t want to increase your review count (maybe because of ghost reviews).
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BUG: Still get ghost reviews with ghost reviews disabled
I’m getting the same grammar point multiple times per lesson, even when I get it correct every time. It’s annoying and time consuming, and kills my motivation to continue.
This isn’t a bug. Each grammar point has lots of mini “sub-grammar points” within it, which means if you get a sentence wrong, that sentence (not the grammar point itself) will become a ghost review. If you get 5 sentences wrong with the same grammar point, you will need to kill 5 ghost reviews for the same grammar point. A basic example of these “sub-grammar points” is て form. This is just one grammar point, but the web site will want to test that you understand how to conjugate it in all ways, such as う = って, ぐ = いで, etc.
Yes, but as mentioned in the title, I have ghost reviews disabled in the settings, so that should not happen.
This is only a guess, but maybe disabling them in the settings just prevents them from being created, and doesn’t actually affect existing ones.
If this is the case, maybe an option to “burn” (remove/delete) them should be made available during review sessions for Ghost Reviews, and maybe a button in Settings to wipe them all clean.
@BlueRaja If you believe that you Ghost Reviews are still popping up in your reviews, would you mind trying to remove them as @Kai suggested? You can do so under Profile, Reset . Just select Ghost Reviews from the dropdown menu under Reset Reviews and click Reset. Reset reviews will behave as if they have never been added to your review queue; there will no longer be any statistics or SRS level associated with them.
If you continue to get the same grammar point multiple times during reviews after a reset or you are seeing the same sentence appear again and again even though you have already gotten that review correct, please let us know. Cheers!
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The Civil Dead review – deadpan ghost comedy of wannabes trying to make it LA
Mordant satire follows a photographer who discovers that it’s not only the acting-career prospects of his needy old acquaintance that have expired
H ere is a quarterlife-crisis comedy written and performed by YouTube comics Clay Tatum and Whitmer Thomas; it is shruggingly deadpan and throwaway, but with a real satirical point and it is genuinely and unexpectedly bleak.Tatum plays a version of himself: Clay, a guy who has come to LA to make it as a photographer. He’s had work published but has real problems paying the rent and has got involved in an illegal fake sublet scam. Out of the blue, an old high-school acquaintance appears; this is Whit (Whitmer Thomas), a needling, wheedling guy who has come to LA to break into acting. Whit wants to hang out with Clay but he’s someone that Clay doesn’t especially want to befriend.
What makes it more awkward is that Whit is a ghost. He is actually dead, and only Clay can see him. He cannot walk through walls or float around, but he has the superpower of invisibility, so Clay does warily permit Whit to accompany him to a high-stakes LA poker game to let him cheat – but he has a rising panicky sense that his new ghost-non-pal wants to hang out with him for the rest of his days. Whit says he can’t remember the moment of his death and does not have a clear most-recent memory of his living existence.
Whit’s actual death is not too far from the career death or social death that so many people come to Los Angeles to endure. For his part, Clay himself keeps claiming to be a friend of superstar Andy Samberg who has apparently vaguely promised Clay work taking set photos, work that has not materialised. So the film also invokes the friendship death that former high-school contemporaries experience when they meet up again in their 20s and realise they have nothing in common – and there is also the artistic or creative death experienced by young performers in LA, creating YouTube comedy or doing one-man or one-woman shows but who feel that, like ghostly Whit, no one can hear them. It’s a mordant piece of pessimism.
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All of Us Strangers pairs Andrew Scott with Paul Mescal in a ghost story combined with a queer romance
As traditional ghost stories have fallen out of fashion, the vengeful spirits of old have rebranded.
In films like Personal Shopper, A Ghost Story and even Tár , echoes from the beyond become symbols of modern malaise, entwined with the droning rhythms of everyday life.
The latest feature from English director Andrew Haigh (45 Years; Weekend) is disinterested in atavistic terrors, while offering a more tender embrace of the dead.
Unfolding like a metaphysical therapy session, All of Us Strangers centres on Adam, a reclusive, middle-aged screenwriter struggling to write about his childhood — until a chance encounter sees him mysteriously reunited with his long-deceased parents.
A loose adaptation of Strangers, the 1987 novel by Taichi Yamada, the film opens on a faceless, near-vacant high-rise on the outskirts of London. As one of the building's two inhabitants, Adam (Andrew Scott) has resigned himself to a sequestered existence, his days spent drifting between a blank page on his laptop, reheated take-out food and tapes of British pop performances from his childhood.
A fire alarm brings Adam out of his stupor and face to face with Harry (Paul Mescal), the other, younger occupant of the building, who arrives at his door with a dwindling bottle of liquor in his hand, searching for any kind of company he can get.
"There's vampires at my door," Harry drawls with a glint in his eye.
The delicate romance that soon emerges is counterpoised by another momentous encounter: When Adam journeys to his childhood home in south London, seeking inspiration, he inexplicably finds his parents (played by Jamie Bell and Claire Foy) waiting for him.
It's an intensely strange, sensual film. Haigh's overt sincerity may require a bigger leap of faith than his supernatural conceit, but he's hardly blinded by sentimentality. Not since the director's own breakout film, Weekend, have the complexities of queer isolation been confronted with such shattering clarity.
The film tantalisingly dissolves the porous boundaries between ghost story and love story, invoking the supernatural to convey the fluidity of contemporary queerness.
Specifically, Haigh focuses on the internal contradictions inherent to his generation of gay men, those who grew up in the 1980s. To Adam, the deaths of his parents as a child were inextricable from the devastation wrought by AIDS, the resulting grief paralysing his ability to ever reconcile with his own identity. As he explains to Harry, it felt like "the future doesn't matter".
As Adam reunites with his parents, the film captures the disorienting experience of retreating into your own past. He's older than his parents ever got to be, allowing for them to connect as grown adults, yet Adam gradually regresses into a childlike state as the film unravels everything left unsaid.
In one of the film's most uncanny scenes, Adam crawls into his parent's bed while dressed in ill-fitting childhood pyjamas. There's an emotional resonance to the physical intimacy he shares with his parents, the type that is all but lost after childhood, yet this moment is offset by a comic sense of the surreal. For all the closure Adam gets, the film never loses sight of the fundamental emotional chasm between parent and child.
On the romance side of things, the casting of Irish internet darlings Andrew Scott and Paul Mescal as a pair of sad, sexy lovers is so eye-rollingly obvious, it almost shouldn't work. But Haigh succeeds in bringing both larger-than-life presences down to earth, nurturing the kind of naturalistic performances that have become a trademark of his work.
Scott remains expressive even as he adopts Adam's desultory, shut-in demeanour; watching him bristle with discomfort reveals a wealth of competing emotions, all stretched into a forced, thin-lipped smile.
In contrast, Mescal imparts a rakish charm and effervescent curiosity to Harry, whose youth liberates him from Scott's calcified trauma but leads to its own acute sense of alienation.
It's rare to see such a richly textured romance met with proportionate style. For all its similarities to his previous work — Weekend's transcendent apartment hook-up; the crystalline dead body that haunts 45 Years — All of Us Strangers sees Haigh's reserved visual sensibility blossom.
The intimate scenes between Adam and Harry are fearlessly physical, revelling in taut skin and soft lighting. The film's visual design is tactile, grounding its abstract elements as desires woozily fold into one another.
It's an exquisite slow burn, quietly building to a shining constellation of queer love and death, bonded in bittersweet eternity.
All of Us Strangers is in cinemas from January 18.
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The holdovers is a dying breed of movie — the perfect comfort watch.
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The Return of TV’s Most Soulful Show
True Detective: Night Country pays tribute to its origins while charting new territory.
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Ever since C. Auguste Dupin pinned the death of a Parisian mother and daughter on an escaped orangutan , the murder mystery has remained one of mainstream culture’s most enduring, flexible, and popular narrative formats. The lonesome detective—with a stern constitution, hair-trigger nonsense detector, and endearing alcohol dependency—is a reliably compelling protagonist, capable of crossing legal lines and meting out justice. This figure is found throughout books and film, but especially on television, where dozens of detectives—be they police officers, licensed PIs , or talented amateurs —have charmed viewers over the decades.
Meet Liz Danvers (played by Jodie Foster) and Evangeline Navarro (Kali Reis, a former boxer turned actor), two of the latest entrants into this wide canon. Danvers and Navarro are policewomen stationed in Ennis, a fictional Alaskan town where the gruff white residents frequently clash with the region’s Indigenous Iñupiat people over the economy, environment, and other territorial concerns. Danvers has a bad habit of sleeping with the local men and feuding with their wives; Navarro, an Iñupiat herself, is frequently caught between the soft racism of the police force and the suspicious eyes of her people. The two women have some unexplained beef, making for natural tension when they’re roped into the same case: the grotesque deaths of all the scientists at a nearby research station who had been studying the origins of life on Earth.
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This scenario might unfold on any number of shows, which could air on any number of cable networks, but it’s more notable because it unfolds underneath one specific banner: HBO’s True Detective , an anthology series about unsettling murders and the serious people who solve them, which became an overnight phenomenon a decade ago and fizzled out just as quickly. Each of its prior three seasons opened with a different murder, but the show’s particular flavor was using these murders to explore how American institutions such as the Church, the government, and corporations use their power to marginalize the powerless and control society. And though many fictionalized detectives are moody and self-destructive, True Detective ’s breakthrough debut season transcended formula with its lead character Rust Cohle, portrayed by veteran movie star Matthew McConaughey, who approached his job as part holy man, part super cop, all heartthrob.
Perhaps no other modern show benefited as much from the phrasing of its title: What made for a “true detective”? Was it Cohle’s electric instinct for sniffing out bone-rotting evil? His partner Marty Hart’s (a perfectly sardonic Woody Harrelson) dogged commitment to the case, even at great personal peril? Or maybe it was something more profound, the show suggested season to season, as it followed characters mired in a sludgy existential malaise—people disgusted with human behavior yet driven to protect those most hurt by it. They had heady conversations about the nature of reality. (“Time is a flat circle.”) They made great intuitive leaps that most company men and desk jockeys could never even dream up. They refused to get tangled in departmental bureaucracy. To paraphrase a line from Mad Men , the show implied that while other televised detectives were sort of faking it, True Detective ’s detectives … were true. And it made for consistently fascinating television, even as critics soured on the second season and politely accepted the third .
True Detective: Night Country arrives after a five-year hiatus that saw creative duties pass from the show’s creator, Nic Pizzolatto (now credited only with the nebulous role of executive producer), to the Mexican writer-director Issa López, who’s given the series a facelift. First off, we have two female leads on a show that was initially critiqued for its portrayal of women. There’s a theme song from Billie Eilish, a reliable way for institutions to signal their interest in reaching a different audience. And a fresh setting: frigid and desolate Alaska, a marked contrast from seasons set in swampy Louisiana, sprawling Los Angeles, and the back roads of Arkansas.
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But Night Country is deeply indebted to what came before it. Its first episode, which airs Sunday night, flies by familiar signposts: gruesome deaths, environmental decay, flirtations with supernatural horror. Both Danvers and Navarro are haunted by something in their past, which contributes to their depressive outlook: When another character suggests that Navarro’s belief in God “must be nice,” as it means believing we’re not alone, the policewoman replies, “No, we’re alone. God, too.” And, most obviously, there are several direct references to the first season of True Detective that go beyond the cutesy Easter egg into what feels like an explicit attempt at world-building: The spirals make their return , and we appear to meet the father of an original character.
This balance is tricky to strike: gesturing at your intent to forge a new direction while heavily invoking what came before you. And although the show is not quite a “return to form,” it’s a nice bit of Sunday-night programming that scratches the itch for a gripping detective story. The murders are disturbing. The supernatural stuff is intriguing. Danvers and Navarro crackle when paired in the same scene: “My spirit animal eats old fucking white ladies like you for breakfast,” Navarro snarls during one of their early tiffs, and a later episode brings back the beloved “two cops driving and shooting the breeze” dynamic of the first season. López, who earned attention with her spooky 2017 feature, Tigers Are Not Afraid , conjures an uneasy and foreboding atmosphere: Ennis is not a happy place, its denizens do not like one another, and everyone’s secrets are ready to boil over. As in the other seasons of True Detective , there’s an awareness of how people are birthed by their surroundings—and, in turn, of how those surroundings are eager to swallow them whole.
My hesitations pertain to structure. The season’s first episodes hew closely to a procedural whodunit, resembling a standard network show about straightforward police work. Danvers has a habit of declaring “The question is …” as a stentorian means of both educating whomever she’s talking to and catching the audience up—and though Navarro eventually dings her for this habit, baking critiques of your show into the dialogue is distractingly self-conscious. (Pizzolatto may have been many things: pretentious, combative, a stereotypical “male writer.” But his work wasn’t self-conscious, and it was better for it.) The show is also familiar in more ways than one: Besides the first season of True Detective , one more show that Night Country resembles is Mare of Easttown , another procedural HBO detective program that cast an Oscar-winning actor as a standoffish, sexually forward policewoman with a heartbreaking backstory who tries to solve a small-town murder that, surprise, threatens to upend the small town.
But Mare of Easttown was a great show, at least, and the more that Night Country rolls on, the more it embraces the mystery: not just “What happened here?” but the invisible forces that compel people to abandon their self-regard and push toward some more authentic truth about being alive. A piece of art can ask many questions, but “What is the purpose of our time on Earth?” is a grand one—and, viral memes aside , True Detective has made for absorbing television because of its willingness to entertain the uncomfortable answers that come out after a couple of beers, a few too many dark nights of the soul. Something very eerie is happening in Ennis, and Danvers and Navarro won’t be the same when they figure it out. That’s enough to keep me watching, and enough to seriously justify the revival of the True Detective moniker.