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by Jay Seaver

"Live fast, die young, figure out why later."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2019 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: "Chiwawa" is structured kind of like a murder mystery, but it's 50/50 as to whether that's the direction it's going to go at any point, and that's fine. After all, it seems like the other way they could have gone with it is faux documentary, which probably would have seemed more like middle-aged folks trying to make a movie about youth, despite actually having been made by a filmmaker relatively close to his characters in age. As someone who has never been a Japanese person in their early twenties, I can 't exactly say how well the film represents that group, but it nevertheless paints an interesting portrait.

It opens with a news report on the especially grisly murder of Yoshiko Chiwako, a twenty-year-old nursing student who, it is suggested, also found herself involved in less savory situations. It is a shock to their friends - they knew Yoshiko (Shiori Yoshida) as "Chiwawa", an effervescent party girl who parachuted into their group when Yoshida (Ryo Narita) picked her up in a bar, sticking around even as relationships changed between her, best friend Yumi (Tina Tamashiro), camera-toting Nagai (Nijiro Murakami), cynical model Miki (Mugi Kadowaki), and Yoshida's friend Katsuo (Kanichiro Sato). There are some wild times and emotional blowouts, but nothing that seems to actually explain what happened to Chiwawa-chan.

Screenwriter/director Ken Ninomiya adapts a manga by Kyoko Okazaki, and though he leads off with homicide, the actual crime is not quite so important as what it implies about the life she and her friends lead, and how it lacks the stabilizing influences and structures that their parents may have had. There's rocket fuel in certain sections of this movie, like how they find a bag with six million yen (roughly $60,000 American) and blow through it in three days of partying, and it doesn't necessarily feel like something that's pushing the plot to how things are going to end. Instead, it's a sign of the abandon with which it is possible for young people to live, while the news occasionally give them reasons to live like there's no tomorrow. People stop in the last leg of the movie to be transfixed by reports of a bombing in Singapore, and like the party, it's less a story point than illustration of the times and how little is in their direct control.

By and large, Ninomiya take pains to avoid letting a plot reveal itself too clearly, just observing this bunch of kids and using Chiwawa as a focus that keeps things from spinning completely out of control or off on tangents. It has the effect of sometimes seeming to leave relatively sensible narrator Miki a step or two behind, but there's perhaps purpose to that: Survivors find a reason to hit the brakes or channel all that motion into some sort of specific direction, and sometimes that dropping out can leave those still moving at high speed in an even more chaotic state. Setting things up so that Miki has to discover what happened lets Ninomiya balance the shock and inevitability of it. Sometimes the film seems to be as much about the last generation's issues as Gen Z's, but that is hardly unique to it; a lot of folks seem to have trouble realizing that there can be a big gap between 20- and 30-year-olds today (and it may be different in Japan).

It's got a couple of impressive ladies at the center, though, with Mugi Kadowaki as the searching Miki and Shiori Yoshida as the title character. Between them, they're not exactly an unreliable narrator but the fact that there's always a bit of envy to Miki plays out in how Yoshida often plays Chiwawa as a little too bright: The audience is seeing Chiwawa not just how Miki saw her but in the way Miki would describe her after her murder, and though she at times resented her friend, she also can't bring herself to speak ill of the dead. In some ways, that unacknowledged competition is the thread that connects the movie, and that Miki has won by default can sometimes turn out to be very hollow.

There's even more going on, with Tadanobu Asano as a photographer and a reporter trying to get to the bottom of Chiwawa's death, and it's good that the movie keeps the audience busy, because something that moved deliberately wouldn't ring true. For Chiwawa and her friends, youth is a high-speed ride and it takes good fortune to avoid crashing.

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originally posted: 01/24/20 01:14:45
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Ken Ninomiya

Written by
  Ken Ninomiya

  Mugi Kadowaki
  Ryo Narita
  Tina Tamashiro
  Shiori Yoshida

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