Tuesday, September 3, 2013

2013 San Francisco Japan Film Festival

The 2013 San Francisco Japan Film Festival was held at the Viz from July 27 to August 4.  This was the inaugural year for this festival.  The film festival was held in conjunction with the annual J-Pop Summit.

Lesson of the Evil starring Hideaki Ito; directed by Takashi Miike; Japanese with subtitles; (2012) - Official Website
Helter Skelter starring Erika Sawajiri; directed by Mika Ninagawa; Japanese with subtitles; (2012) - Official Website
Himizu starring Shôta Sometani & Fumi Nikaido; directed by Sion Sono; Japanese with subtitles; (2011) - Official Website

The executive director of the festival is Manami Iiboshi.  I think she has been programming at the Viz since day one.

The three screenings were well attended.  My only logistical recommendation is to line the film patrons up outside the building.  As I exited one film, they had queued the audience for the next film on the stairwell leading to the basement theater.  The audience that was exiting had to go up the same stairway.  A third line of people were trying to walk down the stairs to buy tickets.  It was very crowded and chaotic.

Lesson of the Evil is a return to form from prolific director Tatashi Miike.  In other words, Lesson of the Evil is violent and bloody.  In a nutshell, a sociopathic high school teacher (Hideaki Ito) kills his students one-by-one at school.  The film reminded me of those 1980 slasher films.  In this case, the school is having some sort of festival so the students are there all night to decorate their exhibit.  The teacher locks the doors and kills them to cover his own botched murder while framing another teacher.  Stylish but lacking some of the dark humor I would have liked in a film like this, Lesson of the Evil wasn't bad for what it was.

Helter Skelter wasn't a great film but it was certainly memorable.  I'm not sure why they chose a title so closely associated with the Charles Manson murders but this Helter Skelter had nothing to do with those events.  Lilico (Erika Sawajiri) is Japan's most popular fashion model who is branching out into films.  Her beauty is the result of experimental plastic surgery which requires her to return for additional treatments or her body will rot away.  That plot device was actually unnecessary but I suppose the rot on the outside is indicative the rot on her inside or on her soul.

Lilico is extremely manipulative and abusive towards her assistant (nice performance by Shinobu Terajima) but also a victim of her exploitive modeling agency and own insecurities.  As her surgical enhancement break down, so does her mental state as we watch her descent.  It's like watching a car crash in slow motion.

Director Mika Ninagawa (a well regarded fashion photographer in Japan) does tell the story in a conventional narrative.  Instead, we have this fevered film which bounces from the colorful, outlandish and garish set pieces.  Ninagawa makes great use of color and a classical music soundtrack.  I recall several scenes vividly - Lilico having a nervous breakdown on television while hallucinating blue butterflies, Lilico in a bathtub full of colorful pills, Lilico in all white stabbing herself in the eye and her red blood splattering against the white, etc.

Along the way, the film offers social commentary on society's obsession with youth and beauty and the media's need to create and destroy personalities.

To put Helter Skelter in baseball terms, Ninagawa took a mighty swing and sent the ball to the warning track.  Helter Skelter was almost something great.  The film was a little too rococo to focus on more than the images.  Erika Sawajiri lets goes for broke as well.  Maybe a little more restraint by the director and lead actress would have served the film better but as the title indicates, there is little place for restraint or subtlety in Helter Skelter.  I have no regrets or complaints though.  I'm glad I saw this film and look forward to the next film by Ninagawa or Sawajiri.

Himizu is the 5th film directed by Sion Sono which I have seen.  It's different from the previous films.  Himizu is set in a post-tsunami wasteland.  That's similar to The Land of Hope which was released a year after Himizu.  For long stretches, Himizu takes place in the lead character's mind as he seems to be having a psychotic episode.  That gives Himizu a disjointed feel which was not quite as prominent in his previous which were bizarre and at fantastical but hewed closer to a more traditional narrative structure.

Shôta Sometani is Yuichi Sumida, a junior high boy whose personal credo is "Normality Rules!"  Fumi Nikaido is Chazawa, a female classmate whose crush on Sumida borders on stalking.  Early on Sumida's mother abandons him.  He lives in a shack on the shore of some body of water and there is a small camp of squatters living in tents and shanties on his land who are his de facto family.  Along with the ever present Chazawa, the group forms an extended family and life is relatively happy if not bizarre.  Sumida's long absent father shows up looking for money.  He owes the yakuza money and when he skips town, the yakuza hold Sumida personally responsible for his father debt.

At this point, Sumida's train goes off the rails.  He gets a gun and there is a parallel subplot involving a teenage boy who stabs some people on a train.  It's unclear (and unimportant) if that is "real" or a figment of Sumida's imagination.  It's clear that Sumida is full of anger and frustration and he is not willing to let those who care about him help.  This sense of isolation is emblematic of teenage angst as well as the physical isolation created by the Fukushima nuclear accident.  The effects of the tsunami and radiation leak are constantly in the background.  Sono layers on his typical flourishes of oddballs, hyper-intense characters and random acts of violence and other crimes.

Himizu is obviously a Sono film but is off kilter which is saying a lot for Sono film.  Off kilter of off kilter does not make normal but two degrees of bizarre but no one goes to a Sono film expecting normalcy.  Sometani gives an impressive performance as Sumida; it looks like it was hard work.  Nikaido steals the show with her quirky, equally unstable character.

Himizu means mole in Japanese; as in a small, furry rodent, not as in a skin growth.

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