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Helter Skelter (2013)
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by Jay Seaver

"A beautiful movie about the ugly business of beautiful people."
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2013 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: What a curious but exciting beast "Helter Skelter" turns out to be - a movie about beauty and its prices that evokes films from a very different time and place (1960s/70s Italy, perhaps) but is undeniably of and about contemporary Japan. I suspect that it works anywhere, though, at least for audiences that don't mind their movies about pretty people doing ugly things being a little on the arty side.

"LiLiCo" (Erika Sawajiri) is Japan's top model, especially popular among youth. She's on the cover of every magazine, does the occasional TV show, and is starting to film her first movie. What the adoring fans don't realize, though, is that she is a complete construct; "Mama" Hiroko Tada (Kaori Momoi) has paid cutting-edge cosmetic surgeons to shape every part of her, but without regular maintenance and treatments, it's up to her make-up artist (Hirofumi Arai) to prevent ugly blemishes from being visible all over her skin. Prosecutor Makoto Asada (Nao Omori) aims to shut down the clinic that does her work, but she's feeling besieged already with the appearance of next big thing Kozue Yoshikawa (Kiko Izuhara).

Well, that and the body that makes up nearly her entire identity rebelling. For the central character of a movie, LiLiCo is a vague, sort of inhuman thing, not so much for being a spoiled monster as someone who doesn't seem to have a true self. It's rare for her to have an opinion, and even when she acts on her own behalf, it seems to come more as a threat to the power of her beauty than an earnest desire. She's a symbol of manufactured attractiveness - Asada notes that her musculature doesn't match her bone structure, and it makes her look especially empty. She's never shown in casual clothing; even alone in her apartment, it's exaggerated glamour and practiced movements.

There is, perhaps, an interesting girl under there, and as small details of the devil's bargain she made to become LiLiCo come out, Sawajiri hints at her, although the monster is just as present. It's an interesting performance, the sort that is easy to write off as model blankness but which nevertheless has moments when something human comes through without breaking the spell. The characters in her orbit are somewhat more transparent, and the cast does a nice job with them, from Shinobu Terajima as a personal assistant entranced by her proximity to this sort of undiluted fame to Kinji Sawanabe as the make-up artist who maybe has some concern for the state of his client beyond how it reflects on his job. Kaori Momoi, meanwhile, is delicious as the original monster (in more ways than one), a Victor Frankenstein who sees her creation as a machine to be exploited, at least until the cost of building it is paid off. Her cynicism is naked and Momoi dives into it.

The performances are nice, but just looking at the thing is just as valid a reason to watch it. Director Mika Ninagawa is a photographer by trade, and as one might expect upon reading that, there's not a frame of the picture that doesn't look fantastic. She opts for a busy style, with plenty of whites and reds, and while she uses plenty of imagery that's not exactly subtle - take, for instance, giving the audience its first look at LiLiCo as bandages fall away from her entire body and face as part of a fashion show - but it's always extraordinary to look at, and cinematographer Daisuke Soma's camera seems to float through scenes, especially early on. Koji Ueno's soundtrack is nifty as well, playful at times and then hitting classical themes with exaggerated intensity toward the climax.

A story forms out of all this - screenwriter Arisa Kaneko adapated an award-winning manga by Kyoko Okazaki, although I have no idea how linear that series might have been, so the way it accumulates bits from various stand-alone scenes might be completely faithful. Like the older generation of movies it is modeled upon, it builds to a point where some big things happen, but doesn't go wild chasing down every bit of resolution. Some bits don't quite work - Nao Omori's job in the movie seems to be saying vaguely philosophical non-sequiters - and the end has a touch too much weird. Other devices, like interviews that speak of LiLiCo in the past tense that could be conducted either by the police or a documentary crew, do their job nicely.

It's unusually well-balanced, in fact - the story isn't nearly as wispy as it looks, and the exercises in aesthetics are far from precious. Ninagawa has made a great-looking, occasionally weird film that impresses in its skills without ever making the audience feel like it's waiting for something to happen.

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originally posted: 07/31/13 06:00:41
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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
  Mika Ninagawa

Written by
  Arisa Kaneko

  Erika Sawajiri
  Nao Omori
  Shinobu Terajima
  Gou Ayano
  Kiko Mizuhara

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