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.

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