Monday, August 22, 2011

Review: Cold Fish

Cold Fish
Directed by Shion Sono
Starring: Mitsuru Fukikoshi, Denden, Megumi Kagurazaka, Asuka Kurosawa, Hikari Kajiwara
Grade: C+

Written for In Review Online:

Although the term ‘sleep with the fishes’ was popularised by “The Godfather” and remains synonymous with gangsters today, rarely does a crime thriller go so far as to work aqua life into its thematic makeup. Shion Sono’s “Cold Fish,” making its way into U.S. theatres nearly a year after it premiered in Venice, utilises this somewhat idiosyncratic metaphor in telling an essentially familiar story about the grubby underworld of the Japanese Yakuza. If there’s much in Sono’s film decidedly designed to rock the boat, there’s enough comic irony in the whimsically-surfaced profession of the tropical fish salesman being used as a cover for murder, greed, and betrayal.

Against all odds, this vocation is seen to be a heinously viable one, as the unassuming aquarium enthusiast Syamoto learns when he accepts the help of Murata, a worldlier kingpin of the industry. Murata enters the film as a gentle giant, handing Syamoto’s daughter Mitsuko employment and accommodation as an apparent moralistic reaction to the girl’s attempted shoplifting of an item at his store. Concern is triggered into Syamoto with every passing increase of involvement Murata poses in their family dynamic, particularly taking an interest in his wife Taeko, and he’s finally shackled by the revelation that this jovial figure is a vendor of more than pets.

Sono relays the tone of the film through the figure of Murata, who evolves from acquaintance to friend, to partner, to sociopath, to psychopath in a fairly short space of time, and is aided by the maniacal display of prolific actor Denden. His loopy mannerisms and extrovert behaviour completely align with the absurdity of a script which has few narrative surprises but plenty of murky characterisation. It’s strange to witness such a licentious community appear as gleefully profligate in their behaviour as Murata’s irksome troupe, who swap sexual partners daily and revel in dissecting corpses over a cup of coffee. Sono’s deviant representation of them eventually tires with Vampira-style segments of women French kissing in doorways, but for the most part the quirky beats and rhythms of this organisation strike a chord.

But all this comes from a film which technically has the same plot as "Wall Street," albeit with an alternatively volatile resolution. It's less suited-and-booted than bloody and berserk, but nevertheless imparts a familiar impression of mentoring through intimidation and fear. Murata and Syamoto’s relationship, while exercised to extreme degrees of dominance and submission, doesn't offer a different power struggle than we're used to seeing in films where the emphasis is placed upon enforced corruption and breeding criminality, and Sono harvests the notion that amorality is contagious without saying much more. Most of the charms of “Cold Fish” lie in Sono’s novel stylistic flourishes, and in the hazardous hues of Shinya Kimura’s grim cinematography.

“Cold Fish” treads the age-old Duality of Man path, unevenly skewed towards using this to generate grotesque horror. Syamoto’s arc is far too extreme for the film’s conceit to work on a profound level, since we only truly empathise with him in the less concisely-characterised scenes, which are few and far between. He’s the only character we’re required to take seriously and yet Fukikoshi’s performance so dominantly comprises of two erratic, forced gears, that it’s a serious stretch to believe him at all. Moreover, the dynamic of this family is lost in the way that Sono spells out the undertones of discontent with talk of backstory, reluctant to show us how Syamoto’s relationship with his wife and daughter relates to the transition of their social situation. There aren’t enough equilibrious examples to support the actions of the final act, and instead much of the action is consigned to repetitious acts of violence, and noir-esque showdowns – neither of which contributes to the humanist angle Sono races toward.

Admirably, a revenge theme lurks in the outback of “Cold Fish,” and can’t really be called a primary motivation of Sono’s action cinema – different, certainly, from 21st century Asian cinema tropes. For a while it even feels as if there are more ambiguous intentions to our hero, and the stressful gauntlet he’s subjected to. The path of this drama so uncontrollably derails into sensationalist territory without earning our understanding, and rather than feel the impact of a bitter finale we’re left to pick up the weary pieces of an explosion too rashly orchestrated. In 2008 Sono’s “Love Exposure” took four hours to sit through – couldn’t he have found more patience in concluding this portrait of unruly society?

Up to and including a shaky finale “Cold Fish” imbues danger and flair without really sustaining the core of its commentary on strained relations and an inherent strive towards fulfilling the many hues of one’s personality. And still, there’s something to be said for a film that can be slow-burning and thoroughly rabid and larger-than-life at heart. While widely asserted that blood is thicker than water, "Cold Fish" proverbially screams that actually, no, it isn't.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Review: Pigs and Battleships (1961)

Pigs and Battleships
Directed by Shohei Imamura
Starring: Hiroyuki Nagato, Jitsuko Yoshimura, Masao Mishima
Grade: A-

Written for Subtitled Online:

It might not come as a surprise to reveal that the pigs in Shohei Imamura’s curiously-titled “Pigs and Battleships” are as metaphoric as they are literal, their use as a ruse for shadier business a more-than-scathing attack on the invasion of Americanised ideology within Japanese culture. The country’s well-documented tense relationship with World War II enemy America was an ultimately destructive affair, culminating in the now-infamous atomic bombings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Made in 1961, “Pigs and Battleships” depicts a period of eerie aftermath and cultural rebirth within Japanese society, and its adoption of a way-of-life which cultivates corruption, greed, and disloyalty.

As U.S. G.I. soldiers stop off at the Japanese harbour town where young, plucky Yakuza member Kinta (Nagato) resides, local women are plied with booze and pimped out by the authorities. While Kinta remains in charge of the local pork farming business, this is largely a cover for the power-political schemes of the town’s mobsters, who are vying with rival gangs and trying to keep officials sweet. Difficulties arise when the corpse of a local businessman is washed up on the shore, forcing the gang to deal with investigations into his disappearance and manage conflict within their organisation.

Despite Kinta’s enthusiasm for his peers his girlfriend Haruko (Yoshimura) struggles to deal with the dangerous nature of the world he has entered into, and encourages him to get a stable, straight profession. This disagreement causes a fierce rift between the couple, forcing them to escape their relationship in extreme ways, and casting into doubt whether this is the right place for them to begin their life together. Kinta himself learns that being part of the Yakuza has its distinct downfalls as well as its benefits, as many of his colleagues are keen to see him sacrificed for the greater good of the unit.

From the outset Imamura presents a glamourised impression of this town, which, with its cultural hybridism and willingness to embrace commerce, feels like it should be on a border between two states somewhere. There’s an element of Welles’ “Touch of Evil” in the way brass accompaniment and sweltering, smoky streets dominate the films’ opening, demonstrative of the thriving success of capitalism. Kinta’s pride in an early scene stresses the self-sufficient and morally-shy philosophies of a community reliant upon mutual exploitation, and a crisis of identity which reflects the director’s commentary on the disarray of the country’s hierarchal workings. These residents are governed by foreign money, and he does little to hide the characters’ motivation to aspire towards American values, caught up in a cycle of self-preservation and armed with a thirst to succeed.

“Pigs and Battleships” balances the crime and romance within the narrative supremely and shrewdly manoeuvres the journey of its characters to align with grander political concerns. Partly due to the off-kilter, occasionally infantile performance of leading man Nagato, Kinta isn’t always so relatable as a protagonist, but although he doesn’t encounter many overt threats in the film we still care about his tempestuous attachment to the feisty Haruko. Jitsuko Yoshimura, as a woman going out of her mind with worry and disillusionment at the people around her, is such a fascinating Actress, and in a similar way to Janet Leigh in “Touch of Evil” captivates by being the victim that never learns to keep quiet, die down, or give in. At some point in the midst of the film Haruko becomes its emotional centre, her fragility mirrored in the film’s sharp decline towards hysteria and unrest. As she grows to be consumed by resentment and unworthiness “Pigs and Battleships” is best served from her perspective, its second half a more sprawling story of Noir cinema’s easy dismantling of perceived strengths and friendships. A subplot involving Yakuza kingpin Sakiyama also stresses the feigned sense of grandeur that comes with the luxury of power.

“Pigs and Battleships” admittedly piles on the metaphors too flagrantly (particularly towards the end) in a finale that echoes the best and worst of Kubrick, opting for cavalry band-style music to accompany catastrophe in the way that Mickey Mouse Club booms out in 1987’s “Full Metal Jacket.” It’s a minor foible since the script exhibits such a breadth of allure – from intricate melodrama to fiery romance to ironic genre subversion – that the aesthetics going on around it merely form another layer to the avalanche. In aping a Noir structure Imamura approaches the common issue of small-town trappings with authorial verve, offering a spectrum of his setting which veers between appealing mystery and strenuous squalor.

While many of the characters on display here are essentially on a hiding to nothing, the same cannot be said for this film’s ambitious creator. “Pigs and Battleships” landed in Japanese cinemas at the time when the French New Wave and Italian Neo-realist movements were burgeoning, and Imamura’s study of Nationalism and its implication on society bears its own unique stamp, too. Occasionally overcooked, it’s nevertheless an astounding product of impassioned, effective, and thoughtful filmmaking, and finds its own pocket of time and relevance within this auteur’s carefully drawn-out filmography.