Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Fantasia Catch-Up #04: Love & Peace, Shinjuku Swan, and Tag, a Sion Sono triple feature spread out over nine nights

Last year, someone at Fantasia mentioned that they had been showing two Takashi Miike movies a year for the better part of a decade, and that must have served as a jinx of some kind, because there wound up being zero from that particular Japanese workhorse on the schedule for 2015. But, as if to make up for it, they got three from Sion Sono, who is making films so quickly that this is only 75% of what he has released in 2015 so far!

The programmers spread them out a bit - one Saturday, one the next Thursday, one on Sunday - but put all three at the 9:30pm slot, which kind of seems like an odd thing to do for something that is a noteworthy chunk of the festival. Maybe if Sono were to make an appearance, but it appears he's busy making movies.

Still, it was kind of funny that, I think the day Love & Peace showed, there was a fair amount of talk among the folks I hung out with in line that it was a fun festival, but nothing had really wowed them up to that point. Then this thing hit and had the crowd roaring, and I remembered that, oh, yeah, there were three movies from this guy I really like who never delivers something that's not at least interesting on the program for the last week and a half. That changes things, even if the next day someone groans that they had felt like they could go home and get some sleep because there hadn't been a lot worth staying up for.

As soon as I realized I wasn't going to get a next-day thing up for Love & Peace, I decided that they were all going to be reviewed together, and I'm glad that's what I opted for; as much as the program pointed out how diverse the offerings were - gentle fantasy, street-level drama, bug-nuts sci-fi/horror - they fit together fairly well.

For instance, it's interesting that Tag is so flagrantly about women getting the short end of the stick in pop culture, but the female characters in Love & Peace and Shinjuku Swan are rather sidelined, especially with the latter being set in and around an industry that exploits the heck out of women. It's not as if Sono really condones it - though it can seem that way - but it still has them pushed to the side.

The other thing that really pops, though, is how well Sono keeps movies rolling. All three have moments where Sono wouldn't be blamed if he stopped, let the audience get comfortable with the new situation, and then started rolling again, but they all just keep rolling, seeming to deliberately overlap in ways to make that not an option. You're seldom going to see a "four months later" caption in a Sion Sono movie, because even when there is that kind of time-jump, Sono makes it feel like he's charging through. It reminds me of when Love Exposure played the festival, and Mitch announced before it started playing that if you're going to use the restroom, you'd better do it now, because they looked for a spot where you could insert an intermission into the four-hour film and couldn't find one.

It's funny, though - I think it was just a couple of years ago, with Why Don't You Play in Hell? and Tokyo Tribe, that I really started to like Sono in large part due to how he had really mastered action, but I think it's his zippy not-letting-up pacing that I've come to truly love, and that's always been there. It certainly makes me want to revisit a few of his movies I didn't love at the time and catch up with the ones I've missed.

Rabu&Pisu (Love & Peace)

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 26 July 2015 in Theatre Hall Concordia (Fantasia International Film Festival: Camera Lucida, DCP)

The first of three Sion Sono films being shown at this year's festival is a joyous, crazy delight, piling whimsy ever-higher even while Sono reveals a darkness behind it. The great bit, though, is that the pieces that may make an audience uneasy never poison the joy surrounding it, even as Sono finds himself springing imagery on the audience that could horrify if handled differently.

That's doubly impressive, because the film really starts out feeling really loose, as Sono follows loser former musician Ryoichi Suzuki (Hiroki Hasegawa) through a series of embarrassments, including missing out on connecting with the girl at the office who might kind of like him (Kumiko Aso), until he buys a turtle, involves it in some weird fantasies, and then flushes him down the toilet as his co-workers continue to bully him, only for "Pikadon" to have his own adventures in the sewer. What he finds there is almost unbelievable, but amazing, and draws so much attention that it's easy to miss that there's important stuff going on topside.

The films doesn't split entirely in half once Pikadon goes down the drain, but there are two fairly distinct tracks. Topside, Sono makes a great story of ambition and desire for something out of reach corrupting pure instincts, of extreme self-confidence and self-doubt being equally destructive. Losing his turtle brings a raw, powerful anger out of Ryoichi, and that fuels him as a musician in the way that constant grinding disappointment never did, though success has a way of eating away humility. Sono presents the music industry "Wild Ryo" plunges into as a force of nature that is less cruel than something that had enough momentum to be unstoppable before he ever got near it, and Hiroki Hasegawa changes up his game to match it: Where his sad-sack nerd seemed a bit like exaggerated mugging at the start, his unelashed ego is monstrous but entertaining later. Hasegawa's Ryo becomes a broad caricature of the worst that rock stardom can bring out in a person, right down to how Kumiko Aso's Yuko gets pushed back into the corner because, as correspondingly nerdy as she is at the start, she's strong enough in her convictions not to go on that ride.

Full review on EFC.

Shinjuku Swan

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 31 July 2015 in Theatre Hall Concordia (Fantasia International Film Festival, HD)

Like a lot of movies adapted from long-running manga, Shinjuku Swan shows a lot of telltale signs of screenwriters Rikiya Mizushima and Osamu Suzuki trying to cram a lot of storylines and fan-favorite characters into a couple hours. It's a process that has torpedoed a lot of movies, but works out all right here in large part because the script is handed off to Sion Sono, who knows a little something about making dense-but-exciting movies with a fair bit of darkness.

He's got his work cut out for him telling the story of Tatsuhiko Shiratori (Gou Ayano), a frizzy-haired loser who, after getting into a brawl with six goons on the streets of Tokyo's red-light district, is recruited by Mr. Mako (Yusuke Iseya). Not to be gangster, but to be a talent scout, looking for pretty girls who can work in the neighborhood's nightclubs, massage parlors, and even more unsavory spots. Of course, even if they're not quite gangsters, the rivalry between the "Burst" agency that employs Mako and the "Harlem" agency the employs Hideyoshi Minami (Takayuki Yamada) and Yutaka Hayama (Nobuaki Kaneko) is still about to explode into a fight that often involves Tatsuhiko getting the crap kicked out of him.

By focusing on Tatsuhiko, the filmmakers often seem to be seriously downplaying the fact that he and his colleagues are in the business of exploiting women in every way possible, with Tatsuhiko being a cheerful, friendly face for the argument that prostitution and related activities aren't so bad so long as it's handled with care. That's the spoken case made, although I don't think there's any missing that a lot of these girls are not having their interests seen to, with pretty horrible results. So what to make of Tatsuhiko, who gets down about this but is always assured that he does more good than harm? That's kind of what makes the movie interesting, because Ayano does a pretty nice job of making him a guy who really needs to believe that he's doing the right thing and is probably eventually able to do a good job of convincing himself that this is the case. Ayano plays Tatsuhiko as somewhat naive, but his optimism tends to be draw smiles more than sneers, with the moments where he briefly seems to grasp that he's involved in a business that chews people up seeming genuine and appealing even if ephemeral.

Full review on EFC.

Real Oni Gokko (Tag)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 3 August 2015 in Theatre Hall Concordia (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

Tag is the most recent of three films at the festival by Sion Sono, who is having an absurdly productive year (four films total released in 2015!), and there are points where it seems like this frantic pace is overtaking him, like you can't expect him to crank this much out and still expect all of it to have some sort of plot that makes sense. He almost seems to be asking us to just take the often jaw-dropping scenes, accept that the weird ways they're being strung together have some weight, and accept that such an assembly is more entertaining than most movies. If that were the case, he wouldn't be wrong, but there's a bit more than that.

The movie starts with one of the bloodiest school outings ever, as a strange wind sheers the buses carrying an entire class of a girls' high school in half, decapitating everyone but Mitsuko (Reina Triendl) - who was bending over to pick up a pencil. She sensibly runs away, but the wind seems to chase her, until she finds her school, where best friend Aki (Yuki Sakurai) and the rest of the class mysteriously seems okay. That's not the end of it for Mitsuko, though, as she soon finds not just the world around her changing, but herself, right down to her face and name (Mariko Shinoda plays bride-to-be "Keiko" and Erina Mano distance runner "Izumi") - the only constant is that something is always trying to kill her.

Nothing seems off-limits, and the over-the-top absurdity initially seems to have no pattern other than the complete lack of men on-screen, and just as soon as that seems firmly established for the audience to start to wonder if there's something to it, it's time to change things up again. Though Sono sets the bar for creative mayhem high with that opening sequence (the festival gave it a special award), he's far from done, as all three actresses are going to spend a good chunk of their time on screen running. The stuff they're running from changes up even more often than they do, from a completely disembodied hypothetical threat a demon groom to... Well, there are certain things a horror-ish movie can't lead out. These scenes seem impossible to link up even though Sono has them run right into each other; it's a contradiction that says amazing things about what a filmmaker of Sono's innovation and energy can do.

Full review on EFC.

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