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Linda Linda Linda
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by Jay Seaver

"Cute cute cute."
5 stars

My insides clenched up a little at the painfully earnest scene that opens "Linda Linda Linda": A teenage girl, speaking into a video camera, saying how IMPORTANT this time is and how they'll never leave it behind. It can make a body gag. The good news is that she's not a part of the group we follow for the rest of the movie; even if they feel the weight of what their last school festival means, they're to busy trying to prepare for it reflect.

These girls are in a band, or at least, they're trying to be. The trouble is that as we join them, the band is falling apart: Moe (Shione Yukawa), their guitarist, has broken a finger playing volleyball, which has somehow precipitated a fight between singer/songwriter Rinko (Takayo Miomura) and keyboard player Kei (Yu Kashii), the two who started the band. Rinko quits, leaving Kei, drummer Kyoko (Aki Maeda) and bass player Nozomi (Shiori Sekine) shorthanded. They tell their teacher that they want to keep their slot on stage - instead of playing original materials, they'll play songs by the Blue Hearts - but Kei doesn't think she can sing and play guitar at the same time. Deciding that the next person they see will be their singer, they wind up asking Son (Bae Doo-na), a Korean exchange student who can barely speak Japanese, let alone sing it.

But they get better. In fact, one of the real joys of Linda Linda Linda is that even with just a couple weeks to go, these girls get better not because some adult or male mentor takes them under their wing, but because they practice their hearts out. They sneak around the school so that they can use the pop music club's room after hours, they take a bus to the studio where Kei's old boyfriend works, and they meet up at each other's homes to try and quietly practice rock & roll, giggling at the silliness of the idea. They practice so much that they clearly don't have time to sleep, and that time is not glossed over with montage; we watch them play the better part of a whole song at several points during the movie, each time better than the last.

Of course, the film is not just about the mechanics of becoming a better musician; it's about making friends and maybe not worrying so much about high school. There's a bit of a girl-power vibe, in that none of the girls' stories focus on getting a boy to notice them - indeed, when that happens, the movie hilariously turns that situation on its head. It's also a question of making the right friends - we're given to understand that Kei and Rinko had an extremely combustible love-hate relationship, but this group seems much more mutually supportive.

Though the film is structured as an ensemble piece, Bae Doo-na's fish out of water has the most to work with and makes the most of it. She's taller than most of her Japanese co-stars (viewers may recognize her as the aunt in The Host, where she's playing closer to her actual age), and when we first see her she's this awkward, gangly thing with her mouth clamped tightly shut lest she sound like a fool. Her awkwardness makes for some very funny scenes, such as when she goes to a karaoke cafe, hoping to practice her singing, and simply cannot understand why she has to order a drink; what's one got to do with the other? It's an amusing performance, but almost seems to be about taking shots at Koreans until one great scene where she steps onto the empty auditorium's stage alone and pretends to introduce her bandmates. The Japanese subtitles on the print indicate she's speaking her native language (it'll be interesting to see how the DVD handles this), and she seems a completely different person - the audience realizes that there's a good chance that back home, she's probably considered pretty, smart, funny, and popular, not some goony misfit. Suddenly, all the scenes where Ms. Bae seemed to be playing stupid come across as her being terribly lonely.

Bae grabs the movie so strongly that the other characters seem a little sidelined. We spend a fair amount of time with Yu Kashii's Kei, and in way the movie is as much about her learning to be a part of a team, rather than trying to control the situation, as it is about Son making friends, but she never gets a scene where she can bowl the audience over. Aki Maeda is tremendously likable as the glue that holds the band together, but Shiori Sekine gets somewhat sidelined as Nozomi - she's described as shy, and really does stay in the background.

Occasional teen-with-video-camera moments aside, director Nobuhiro Yamashita and his co-writers keep the movie fun by never going overboard on the importance of the moment. Indeed, they mock that attitude without being smugly subversive, such as when Rinko asks if she can leave as her teacher starts to talk about what festival meant when he was a lad. Even for someone who knows at little about Japanese pop music as I do, the Blue Hearts seem like a good choice for the soundtrack; they're apparently Japan's equivalent of The Clash, and their music is upbeat and full of energy.

I notice that this is being distributed in the U.S. by Viz Pictures, and it's too bad that they haven't been able to get any of their movies any sort of notable theatrical release yet; between this, "Kamikaze Girls", "Train Man", and the forthcoming "The Taste of Tea", they haven't picked a loser yet.

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originally posted: 01/16/07 08:22:03
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Vancouver Film Festival For more in the 2005 Vancouver Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Seattle Film Festival For more in the 2006 Seattle Film Festival series, click here.

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