That's a stupid title. The film has no zombies! In fact it's got no undead of any kind and it's not even a horror film. This took me by surprise and will undoubtedly have led to a ton of misplaced expectations. Instead it's this odd combination of fairly classy filmmaking and amateur hour nonsense. Halfway through, I thought it was terrific. By the end, not so much.
We begin with a schoolgirl committing suicide. Her friends want to commemorate her memory by putting on a play she wrote, based on a real incident at their school from eighty years earlier in which an immigrant teacher from Germany had an illicit relationship with a student. It ended in suicide, which explains why the school authorities weren't keen to see it performed. However all this is really nice. It feels real. It's a proper film, with subtext and everything. To be blunt, I guessed that we wouldn't get zombies because the film was too good. Needless to say we have echoes of the past in the present, with at least two possible and/or burgeoning teacher-student relationships. On top of that we've already been served notice that these teenagers are sexually mature, since one of them's in trouble with the teachers for having been caught coming out of a love hotel with her boyfriend.
The problems begin with the acting. I was enjoying the film and taking it seriously enough that I wanted to give a blanket pass to all the performances, but that would have been wrong. Our teenage heroine (Kyoko Fukada) is usually fine, feeling particularly honest in her relationship with the teacher in charge of the drama club, but every so often she'll drop a clanger. The actress simply doesn't know how to respond to shocking revelations, while she can't cry to save her life.
That's not the end of it either. There's a Westerner in the cast, which I usually hate. Call it a prejudice. That's why I'm reluctant to check out The First-Timers. Maybe I'm just jealous, or else maybe it's a conditioned response to these people usually being amateurs who've stumbled into some acting work simply by virtue of knowing some Japanese. Guess what! That's true this time too. This latest gaijin (Thane Camus) has no problem with the language and is actually better than many of his kindred, but he turns his most dramatic scene into comedy by pulling faces. Mind you, he's since managed to land a few more acting jobs (again in Japan).
Oh, and there's a pretty boy. If he didn't land the role because he sings in a band, he's doing a storming impression of it.
Anyway, I've only described the beginning of the film. It soon gets complicated. There's more than one genre in the melting pot here, with Proper Film rubbing shoulders with a rash of deaths, possible conspiracy theories and some guys in hoods who look like the Klu Klux Klan. You could make a giallo out of this and I wonder if that wasn't even an influence, with the black leather gloves. At first I thought this was fascinating. I was getting ready to praise the way the story was taking all these surprise turns and managing to keep it all feeling unified. However in fact the murderous conspiracy stuff is what's dragging the film down.
The character work I liked, with everyone trying to honour the memory of their dead friends and tentative blossomings between Fukada and her teacher. However the amateur detective stuff never stops heading downhill. In fairness, for a while it's interesting. Then it becomes formulaic, but even that you'll look back on later as a high point. In the end they degenerate so far as to have the villain turning up out of nowhere to hold the heroine at gunpoint, reveal his identity and explain the plot to her. It's even worse than it sounds. It's 100% cliche and their attempted drama becomes unintentional comedy.
However once that's out of the way and we don't have a murder mystery cluttering up the plot, we're back to the proper film and a delicate epilogue with Fukada. That I liked.
This is a slapdash film, never hitting a middle ground but instead being by turns good and bad. The good stuff though is really nice. This is a Christian school in which the headmaster is also a priest who takes confession. It's lovely to see this charming old actor spending time in this role with Fukuda. The film's first half is subtle and intriguing. It has students guessing a computer password (twice!), but I was prepared to accept that as one of those things that happen in movies. There's a lot here to enjoy, but you'll also have to brace yourself for toxic acting lapses and a sinister plot that appears to have been cut-and-pasted from TV cliches. It's unintentionally funny, though. I'll give it that.
Apparently it's based on a novel, which boggles my mind a bit. Would this novel be classy or a speed-written stinker?