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Big Bang Love: Juvenile A
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by Jay Seaver

"Even for Takashi Miike, this is a bit odd."
3 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2007 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: Takashi Miike showed down a bit a couple years ago to take a stab at doing a big-budget family movie, but since then he's gotten back to what passes for normal where he's concerned: Churning out movies at a rate nearly unheard of for other filmmakers, working cheap and occasionally tossing something downright peculiar in among the yakuza dramas and horror films. "Big Bang Love" is one of the strange ones, an interesting mixture of unusual styles and subject matter that works more often than not, if only just.

After an opening that is deliberately abstract and related to the main story thematically more than literally, we get into the meat of the story: Prisoner Shiro Kazuki (Masanobu Ando) has just been killed, apparently strangled by cell-mate Jun Ariyoshi (Ryuhei Matsuda), who is saying things like "I did it". Still, an official investigation must be made, but it leaves the investigating officers perplexed: Shiro is a timid young man, despite the brutal crime that placed him behind bars, while Shiro was a belligerent repeat offender who had made an enemy of everyone else in the building; even the warden has a motive.

The murder mystery is mainly a framework off which to hang an examination of how these characters never really had any kind of shot, as opposed to a puzzle to be solved. Indeed, there's so little to it that the film occasionally seems to repeat himself, having his detectives run in circles, covering the same material multiple times (once or twice, I suspect, re-cutting the same footage to do it). Instead, Miike gives us vignettes about how the environment Shiro grew up in seemingly offered him the choice of becoming a thug or becoming a victim. Jun, on the other hand, becomes a bit more of a cipher by design, as the film abjectly refuses to stick him in any of the typical gay pigeonholes; indeed, occasionally the audience will find themselves wondering just what his sexual orientation is, or whether that's too binary a concept for someone like Jun.

Though the story is fairly basic, the means Miike uses to tell it are wide-ranging and intriguing. All through it, there are references to how small the story's world is, whether it be from the rocket launch facility near the prison or cut aways to lectures about the very origins of the Earth (the film's Japanese title translates to ""4.6 billion years of love"). There are multiple narrators, including one at the end that makes the movie seem like an existential episode of Dragnet, and liberal use of seemingly unconnected information and other media, from poetry to dance. The start of the film is an anecdote about how, in certain Pacific island nations, oral sex is a rite of passage, symbolizing the passage of masculine strength down generations; it's followed by a dance that highlights masculine beauty, inviting even the straightest members of its audience to acknowledge that they can be attracted by that, at least under certain circumstances.

Miike seems to be inviting us to treat this juvenile detention facility as one of those circumstances, because it certainly has an otherworldly feel: Cell walls are represented with lines on the floor, as in Lars van Trier's Dogville, and the interior of Jun's and Shiro's cell is arranged with the prisoner's sleeping mats radiating from a central void; it's almost spacious enough to be a world unto itself. Other parts of the prison, such as the warden's office, look almost like sets from an Expressionist stage play; they fade to black rather than showing walls and only retain the necessary elements as part of the set decoration. Flashbacks to the outside world look realistic, albeit a bit seedy.

The question is whether this amounts to unorthodox but perceptive filmmaking or the art-house version of style over substance, and I'm honestly not sure where I stand on that. What Miike is doing visually is rich material, and I suspect a person could watch Big Bang Love several times and come up with new facets they hadn't seen before, and it's certainly easier to wrap one's head around what's going on than it was with Izo, Miike's last film that could be described as kind of arty. The story might almost be too thin, though - it never quite breaks free of its murder mystery structure, and because of that, it sometimes feels like the stylization is trying to distract the audience from it not being a really good murder mystery - the suspects aren't nearly as interesting as the victim, and sometimes the jumping back and forth in time just feels like we're hitting the same place multiple times.

That's off just one viewing, though, and "Big Bang Love" is at least interesting enough that I wouldn't pass up a second to see if there's something that I missed the first time around.

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originally posted: 07/31/07 10:03:10
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Toronto Film Festival For more in the 2006 Toronto Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Vancouver Film Festival For more in the 2006 Vancouver Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 Fantasia Film Festiva For more in the 2007 Fantasia Film Festival series, click here.

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9/02/07 ann cool 5 stars
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