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Bad Film
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by Jay Seaver

"'Bad Film' isn't, really."
4 stars

The question has probably been answered in some interview or festival Q&A with Sion Sono, but if he had been able to spend the time and money to edit this movie and get it released back in 1995, would he have still called it "Bad Film", or is that a title applied in hindsight now that he's got many far more polished works under his belt? Because while this is a very rough underground movie, it's still a Sion Sono movie, which means it's sprawling, unique, and far less cynical than you may expect.

In its alternate future (at the time) the impending Hong Kong handover among other things caused racial tensions in Tokyo to escalate, with foreigners forming gangs and certain Japanese groups forming their own, with some of the most pitched animosity between the Chinese "Baibubong" gang and the Japanese "Kamikaze" gang. Ah, but Kana, the sister of a Kamikaze, has grown quite fond of Maggie, a homeless Chinese girl affiliated with the Baibubongs. They're not the only folks in the gangs realizing the like members of the same sex, and eventually the gays in both plan to plot together versus their homophobic leadership.

There is also baseball.

Described like that, it sounds like Sono is making an earnest allegory for how people who resent bigotry when applied across an ethnic or cultural axis will have no qualms with it applied by sex or orientation, and vice versa, and I suspect that's a big part of what was in his head at the time. If so, he's not exactly focusing on the unfairness or irony of the situation, but instead diving into a zig-zagging story that can turn on a dime and spiral into more insane heights at a moment's notice, with prejudice forming the foundation but plenty of melodrama building everything else up until the part of one's brain that does fine analysis has to cede resources to the part that tries to put lunacy into some basic order.

There is, after all, a lot going on that is being presented in the most proudly amateurish way possible. When he shot this back in 1995, Sono placed a lot of members of his 2,000-person poetry/performance art collective "Tokyo GAGAGA" on-screen and behind cameras, eventually amassing 150 hours of Hi-8 video that he whittled down to a 160-minute movie in 2012. Despite there being a lot of important roles, only a few actors (including Sono himself) are credited, with the rest of the cast and crew's names either deliberately anonymous or lost to time. The square frame contains untrained acting, which is often grimace-worthy but also has the weird authenticity of people who obviously aren't skilled at lying to the camera. They may only be expressing one emotion or trait at a time, but they are all in on it.

That sort of commitment comes through in other ways, too. Sono's underground film often seems to take the opposite tactic as a lot of micro-budget indies in that many mumblecore-type films create a story small enough to shoot without disturbing the neighbors, and Bad Film will have none of that. Sono wants to have riots and fights on subway trains and shootouts on the street, and since he's got a small army of people to serve as extras, he'll do that and just have them either flee the scene or presumably tell the cops it's performance art. There are several amazingly elaborate pieces that must have been done in one take, and so what if you can sometimes see another camera shooting close-ups in a long shot? He's not backing down from making the movie he wants to make, or at least amassing footage for it.

Granted, this kind of unrefined, half-improvised guerrilla filmmaking is not for every audience. For much of the film, omnipresent narration bounces from ironic to necessary and back, and there are plenty of moments where the editing fails - a stub of an abandoned subplot is still present, or the same point will be hammered two or three times in a row. It gets to a point where even the most patient fans who had some idea of what they were getting into had to groan over how it just would not end, especially since there's a lot of stuff getting from point T to point U that couldn't be cut without making things incomprehensible. The less-patient fans had already gone for the exits.

I don't necessarily blame them: Even the current Sion Sono who makes intricate movies that are only unpolished by specific decision can be an acquired taste; the poet who was still experimenting with film and had a bunch of non-professional actors improvise a satiric gang epic can be a real challenge. It's an experience like few others, though, enthusiastic even when bogged down.

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originally posted: 08/09/13 03:15:10
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 New York Asian Film Festival For more in the 2013 New York Asian Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2013 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Sion Sono

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  Sion Sono


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