Why Don't You Play in Hell?

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 04/08/14 13:51:52

"Make a great movie or die trying."
5 stars (Awesome)

SCREENED AT BOSTON UNDERGROUND FILM FESTIVAL 16: So it's come to this: The festival program describes Sion Sono's latest as an ode to 35mm cinema, and while "ode" doesn't necessarily mean "requiem", it's often not far off. Fortunately, even if this is a eulogy for making movies on actual film, Sono is not one to look back wistfully and be over-sentimental; he's going to send it off with a bang, and to do so he creates a riotously fun two hours of yakuza mayhem, all captured on film.

It's literally riotous at the start, as a group of teens calling themselves the "Fuck Bombers" are shooting their amateur film when they see youth gangs starting to rumble and not only does their leader Hirata (Hiroki Hasegawa) decide to capture it, but he starts trying to direct it as well. Sasaki, one of the fighters, winds up coming with them, and it looks like the sky is them limit, even as the wife of a prominent yakuza is dispatching potential assassins across town. Ten years later, not much has changed for the Fuck Bombers, which is starting to really frustrate Sasaki (Tak Sakaguchi). A full-blown gang war is threatening to erupt between the clams led by Muto (Jun Kunimura) and Ikegami (Shinichi Tsutsumi), although Muto is more concerned with getting the film debut of teen daughter Michiko (Fumi Nikaido) finished before wife Shizue (Tomochika) is released from jail. Tricky, because she has run off and is next seen with Koji (Gen Hoshino), who is not the filmmaker that Muto believes (and kind of needs) him to be.

Those who anticipate a long harangue on 35mm's superiority to digital are likely to be disappointed; as much as Sono has Hirata speak of his love of film, the most direct attack has the older Fuck Bombers watching something on a small TV in the middle of a shuttered theater. Sono likely plays the reference game fairly well, although some of the most interesting is rather self-referential: I'm not sure if people were exactly calling Tak Sakaguchi Japan's answer to Bruce Lee when he first came on the scene ten or fifteen years ago in Versus, but he certainly got a lot of notoriety that his movies haven't quite lived up to. And it may just be coincidence, but one of the most recent movies of the very prolific Sono's to see release and the festival circuit is Bad Film, an only recently completed picture shot when Sono was the same sort of raw, guerrilla-style filmmaker as the Fuck Bombers, and I wonder if finishing that influenced or inspired the making of this one in any way.

Sono has become a better filmmaker since shooting Bad Film, of course, arguably one of Japan's best, and certainly one of the country's most daring. He's got a talent for stacking one outrageous situation on top of another and somehow preventing the whole structure from falling over despite the fact that almost every single storyline that comes together is in some way absurd, and this one is no exception: From the brightly-colored toothpaste ad featuring a young Michiko (Nanoka Hara) that opens the movie to the blood-spattered finale, this is one nutty movie. Sono is not just adept at piling on the craziness, though; while he doesn't seem to be giving himself a lot of downtime between one provocative sequence and the next, the narratives merge with something more like formation flying than a high-speed collision and the characters are given the chance to be actual human beings rather than just broad caricatures.

Make no mistake, the cast is playing them big, probably none more so than Hiroki Hasegawa as Hirata. Hirata is one of those characters defined by how he optimistically gives his all to something, and Hasegawa dives in, stalling the line between cheerfully upbeat and a quite frankly terrifying dedication that threatens to shove the rest of the ensemble off the screen. There are lots of others doing good work, too, with Gen Hoshino and Fumi Nikaido making an entertaining couple, with Hoshino's Koji nebbishy even before meeting an spoiled, forceful (but not entirely inhuman) yakuza princess. While much of the cast is young, Jun Kunimura is a veteran - this is far from his first gangster - and not only does he seem to be having great fun playing Muto as trying to do right by his family, more or less, he gets to explain the realities of film financing with an unusual but apt metaphor.

There are plenty of other quality character actors on hand to play yakuza, which is a good thing, because the showdown that Sono arranges for them is as bloody as it is bonkers. Describing it too much would ruin the wonderful incredulity the audience feels as it approaches and plays out - it's one of those scenarios that would make no sense in the real world but which seems surprisingly plausible once the story leads there - but the execution is fantastic. Sono and Sakaguchi (pulling double duty as fight choreographer) give the audience an action sequence that would be impressive and fun to watch if it were played straight, but which also drops a big, well-timed laugh in any time that is threatening to happen... And then reminds the audience that there's a bit more to these characters than just absurdity. There's good (and bloody) action throughout the picture, but the climax is a heck of a capper.

When it's finished, "Why Don't You Play in Hell?" probably won't inspire the sort of pondering that some of Sono's more provocative films do, and as a tribute to 35mm movie-making, it may be a little off-target (groups like the Fuck Bombers can do great things with digital). It is, however, an exhilarating two-hour ride, a reminder of just how much fun movies can be when one is in it for the sheer joy of the medium, either as a film-maker or film-viewer.

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