WARNING: This motion picture contains explicit portrayals of violence; sex; violent sex; sexual violence; clowns and violent scenes of violent excess, which are definitely not suitable for all audiences.
That's the official tagline, by the way.
What's interesting about this film is the fact that it's not a forgettable throwaway. It should have been. You could summarise the plot on the back of a postage stamp, most of which would be the words "gangster stuff." I was halfway through the film before I'd even managed to work out who its protagonists were. There are a million films like it, none of which are worth a damn. The script contains very little of interest and the actors are perfectly good, but not transcending the material.
However the director is Takashi Miike. I trust you're now paying more attention.
In an perverse way, this impressed me more than his better-known works like Audition
, Ichi the Killer
and The Happiness of the Katakuris
. Those films are obviously extreme and unlike anything else you'll have seen, whereas Miike's taking cookie-cutter material and somehow supercharging it. Take the first five and a half minutes, for instance. You've got gangsters, strippers, drugs and so on. This is exactly what you'd expect to find in a yakuza movie, but what's more unusual is that Miike's done it as a music video. Seriously. No visual narrative and no real dialogue, just insane violence and perversion... set to music. You've got a naked woman falling off a skyscraper and landing on the camera. That's a throwaway shot. You've got gangsters machine-gunning a nightclub. You've got a huge shotgun. You've got, well, Miike.
The thing is, Miike directed about four hundred films in 1999. Okay, I exaggerate. It's actually seven, if you count a TV mini-series as just one. This is someone with scary energy and a ferocious desire to experiment. You can see it in this film, in which he's clearly pushing his directorial style in some very specific directions. Quite often he'll shoot an entire scene in long shot with a static camera, as if he think he's Roger Corman and trying to finish the shoot in three days. He doesn't break this self-imposed rule even for moments like a character finding the bloody corpse of their partner. Any other director might regard a close-up there as mandatory, but not Miike.
However this isn't laziness, because the one thing you can't say of this film is that it lacks energy. You've also got handheld camera work, overhead shots looking down into an alley and a general sense of playfulness. There's a pattern to Miike's use of close-ups, which draw attention to themselves because of the aforementioned static full shots. Of course for all I know this is normal for Miike, but my suspicion is that there's no such thing as "normal for Miike".
Then you've got what he's done to the material. This isn't just violence, but Miike violence. It's not just that he's ignorant of notions like taste and restraint. I think he regards them as a challenge. If you've ever wanted to see a man getting a dog sexually excited so that it will mount a human, here's your chance.
This is a lot to take in. It's almost sensory overload, which explains why I hardly noticed that the first half of the film appeared to contain almost no plot and no characters. These are normally problems in a movie. Maybe you can see now why I was so impressed by Miike.
So that's the style. The text isn't particularly important here, but it's not entirely negligible. For a start, it's addressing the issue of Chinese-Japanese relationships. Miike had dealt with the Chinese Triads before in Shinjuku Triad Society (1995), Rainy Dog (1997) and Ley Lines (1999). Riki Takeuchi's gang are the descendants of Japanese people raised in China, lacking a national identity and saying themselves that they belong to no culture. There are actually quite a lot of people like that, stuck there after World War Two and thereafter having to pretend to be Chinese and not even daring to speak Japanese for fear that their neighbours find out who they were. Notice also the scene in which the Japanese boy doesn't like Chinese food. Takeuchi's character is a Chinese Triad boss and ex-yakuza, who moreover is almost psychotically disassociated. Check out the Russian Roulette scene. Yikes. However he also has a younger brother, on the subject of whom he appears to have a few last reserves of humanity.
He's the gangster. The cop is Show Aikawa, who's his mirror. The connections between them aren't so much in the plot, but in the parallel scenes. We see them go to restaurants at the same time, although Takeuchi isn't going there to eat. Family, money, death and so on are all reflected. Aikawa has a sick daughter whose treatment will cost 20 million yen, which is tough on a cop's salary.
In a way, the subtext is the text. However this isn't true for the ending, which explodes on you out of nowhere and towards which Miike gives no clues whatsoever. It all ends in an awesome showdown that demonstrates exactly how to do cars in a movie, but then goes somewhere that I can't describe for two reasons. Firstly, it would be a spoiler. Secondly, you'd think I was mad. I think we can safely say that a tasteful, restrained movie wouldn't have been able to get away with that.
Overall, this isn't a film that most people will even think to watch. They'll look at the one-line summary and imagine something pretty near the truth. Even if they lowered their standards enough to watch it, they'd find something that on the face of it lives down to expectations and is trying hard to hide its redeeming values. All this is true. Admittedly it's the first of a trilogy, but one with no plot connections between the films and instead the only linking factor is the director and the two lead actors. What makes it distinctive is Miike, but if your brain hasn't been sent into shock by what you've just watched then that might perhaps be enough.