On occasion, Oral Intercourse will veer away from the usually lame interviews to offer its own take on a few foreign films that are encroaching our American coastline.
Hi. As part of Movieweb’s agreement to “think outside the box”, those bitches have unmercifully thrown B. Alan Orange to the curb of Asian Cinema. Lucky enough for me, I like reading subtitles. And I dig just about everything coming out of the annals of modern day Japanese filmmaking right now. (And judging from all the J-Wood remakes, so does Tinsel town.)
The fine folks at Artsmagic have sent me two upcoming DVD releases with the hopes that I’ll review them for you; my brethren. First up is the Toshiaki Toyoda masterwork 9 Souls. And then, I’ll offer my take on the grimy neo-noir piece Bullet Ballet…
Hell Mission Statement #27904:9 Souls
“At the center of the Universe lies the End of the World.” A statement that couldn’t be truer for nine escaped convicts attempting to revalidate their own personal existence in the space-time continuum. Toshiaki Toyoda’s 9 Souls is a metaphysical look at time travel; it’s leap functions relying more on spirituality than Hollywood science. Redemption is an unobtainable goal for this solemn group of prison escapees. Their lot is full of despicable human beings; themselves almost unaware of their individual need to be readjusted back into an upright society. The only seeming way they can atone for their fraudulent pasts is by hurtling their bodies headlong into the future.
This gradual slipstream through hours and a brutal existence is not obtained by some sort of funky time travel device, like a phone booth or a DeLorean. It is brought about by a gun shot, or a gapping knife wound, or the fast flying plastic of a car bumper.
The film is ground against a realistic backdrop, never once does it attempt to compensate for its convictions. This isn’t wound tight in the vesicular wires of science fiction. It is about overcoming hope, and the loss of perfection. Its thoughtful message seems to be: The only way to a better future is through death. That may seem pessimistic and full of sadism, but in watching each strongly fueled persona attempt to regain a bit of granular consciousness, we understand that Death is a welcome transition. Happiness lies in the other world. The only way this misshapened group of clowns can transcend the present is by gripping the black robed hands of their own demise.
At the core of 9 Souls rests a rather peculiar and moving expose on the art of self emancipation, and how it is simply impossible in our current living existence. This team of killers and rapists are bound in a seasick situation that hits you square in the belly. There is only ethereal forgiveness for them; nothing they do or say can compensate for their heinous deeds on this earthly plain. They can not resurrect those they have killed. Nor can they win salvation through slack achievements such as getting a normal job and settling down with a former loved one.
Each imprisoned entity represents a different part of one soul. Thematically challenging in its right to promote the story, these separate segmented deities must escape the body, each evacuating one of the nine holes present on a human male carcass. Interestingly enough, when we first meet this holy sanction, they consist of ten convicts housed within a tiny holding cell. A woman has ten orifices. What this means, I’m not sure. It’s Japanese, so it must mean something. There’s a heavy metaphorical atmosphere swirling about the surface of the film, and often times, the dialogue gives us hints and clues. The prison chamber is a representation of the body. I think. After one of the ten men has a sudden rushed and angered outburst, he is hauled away from his incarceration. This leaves only nine. Minutes later, they have escaped the detention area, as if evacuating the dead remains of a corpse. Once on the lam, their nucleus is a spirit adrift in the world. For awhile, they remain housed in a stolen van that is constantly on the move. Slowly, one by one, this sanctioned society of criminals start to waft apart. Each member of Cell 13 goes on a personal quest to achieve spiritual alignment. In doing so, they each meet with the backhanded slap of God.
9 Souls could almost be a Japanese remake of John Sturges’ The Great Escape. It truly takes that concept and weaves a flavored bit of ingenious wood grain from its centralized hub. Never once does it rely on a traditional formula. In Japanese cinema, we’re constantly seeing a free flowing arc as far as structure and this film is no different. It shares a similar theme with The Great Escape in that it’s about a tight knit band of offenders that congeal together then drift apart. Here, the centralized focus is flip-flopped. Sturges’ epic is mainly about the escape and how it is accomplished. It spends nearly three hours on the how and why. It only spends about 1⁄4 of it’s time on the after effects of this long-overdue prison upheaval. Here, in 9 Souls, the escape is almost an after thought. We never really see how they manage to free themselves. The flat mates of Cell 13 spot a mouse running across the floor and quickly assume that there must be a hole. This hole must lead to a way out. Cut to: The escapees evacuating a mud fissure far outside the reaches of their prison walls.
It doesn’t really matter how they managed to liberate themselves. That is not the point of the movie. And the notion is done in such a free wheeling, almost joyful way, we are okay with it. The film rolls at such a pitched speed, it doesn’t give us much time to question the questionable. As soon as the opening titles give in, we know we’re in for a real treat. 9 Souls has one of the best character introduction scenes since Reservoir Dogs. Thumping guitar music intercedes pause-clips of each detainee, Japanese character symbols filling the edges of the screen, informing us of their individual crimes.
At two hours, the film manages to give each of its nine main spirits enough screen time that we’re likely to sympathize with all of them. Sure, they’re horrible people, but Toyoda somehow makes us believe in them, and care about them. By the end of their journey, we are rooting for their salvation. And it almost hurts, the way it comes about for each. As with The Great Escape, there comes a point where all of the characters we’ve become attached too drift apart. The core group is separated. This is where the Sturges film fails. Once those allied POWs go their separate ways, it has a hard time keeping track of its seven different storylines. The same thing almost happens here. For a good hour, or so, these guys are together, trying desperately to hide as a group under obvious disguises. We become accustomed to that, and it feels natural. When this wolf pack slides away from each other, there is a sullen fear that the film may loose its way.
But just the opposite happens. Toshiaki makes every personal story count; and it means that much more to the through-line once they are all back together at the end. Despite the cruel nature of their ways, it’s hard not to grow found of these 9 souls. Redemption can only be found in death, and that federal rhythm strikes a heart-crushing blow. Toyoda has produced one of the most enduring films of the year. It is more textured and stylized than any generic Hollywood drama could ever hope to be. It knows how to pull us in and keep us situated. Never once do we feel like defaulting to the pause button, and that, itself is an achievement.
9 Souls is a distressing, albeit wickedly smooth stretch of highway; a mighty thoroughfare of Japanese cinema.
Seek it out. Enhance your seemingly wicked thematic party banter. People might think you’re an asshole, but at least you’ll be in on the Coop when the topic of Japanese cinema comes into focus over an almost drained keg of Miller High Life. Natch.
This is one of the most fetching films to come out of the Escaped Convict genre. Ever…
(Now…Onto…)Hell Mission Statement #22402:
Bullet Ballet throws us head first into a stark black and white world that almost plays like a distant memory. It tries desperately to evacuate the deep crevasses of our brain without much luck. We have to squint to redefine the lust; a filthy type of crime noir vibe has scrubbed itself into every visible crack in this Tsukamoto genre-piece. Dirt fills the thinner details, and we squirm to leave it behind. Yet, the story has a quaint way of pulling us in and plugging us up. The thing is fevered in its attempts to toy with our own emotional needs.
Guns, guns, guns. Everyone needs one, and in contemporary film as we know it today, everyone has one. You’d be hard pressed to uncover a modern day movie that doesn’t cater to the bullet chamber. Even the quaintest of Romantic Comedies usually has a firearm thrown in for good measure. It’s nearly impossible to escape the long, black barrel that is often used to eviscerate unnecessary characterization. Though, the gun usually comes as an afterthought. A high commodity that is as essential as oxygen. Hand-held trigger weapons are omnipresent. We never wonder where they came from, our how any centralized character came to posses one. As an audience, we simply take it on the chin that every scripted character comes equipped with a gun.
Bullet Ballet breaks that implied type of thinking. Throughout it’s hour and twenty-four minute running time, obtaining a gun is the sole quest of its nebbish hero. Here, in his world, a seemingly real, yet hyper-fantastical backdrop of cryptic faces, gun lust is only attainable through catalogue and computer generated imagery. Holding a revolver in one’s hand is the impossible dream. Firearms are not an easy thing to come by in this feudal Japan.
Goda, played by director Shinya Tsukamoto, is an advertising executive that arrives at his pad late one night to find his girlfriend of ten years dead. Shot. Most likely, it is a suicide. He struggles to figure out why and how it happened, and in the process, he becomes obsessed with purchasing the same model handgun that did her in. Why does he need it so badly? Answers are never fully brought to the waterline, but Goda certainly is preoccupied with reenacting the girl’s grisly fate.
His search for the perfect pistol brings him across the incinerate path of a young, sexy girl that he once saved from being struck by a train. In the process of pulling her out of the way, she bit his hand and left a row of teeth mark scars in his skin. We later find out that her favorite pastime is steeping the edge of the train tunnel when the subway goes speeding by. She likes the electrified feel of the vibrations it gives off.
Goda takes a special interest in this girl, Chisato, a female member of a street gang that takes to beating the man for no other apparent reason than the fact that he is on their turf. Once Goda arrives at acquiring his goal, he uses his newfound weapon to willingly aid the disgruntled band of youths from a cagey executioner that has taken to slaughtering them one by one.
Bullet Ballet comes quick on the heels of Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo series (which I couldn’t stomach) and his mesmerizing classic Tokyo Fist. His heir apparent thematic theorizing on social deconstruction in modern Japan is soaked through the bottom of this outing, though he seems to be hitting the arc at a different angle. Throughout these austere proceedings, Shinya manages to create an acre of desolation that is difficult to plow and tend. He grabs his own ideas and shoves them in a glass case of promotion. A gun possessed in an area where they are nearly impossible to attain brings nothing but destruction and devastation, both mentally and physically. Goda is overwhelmed by the sheer power he holds in his hand.
The film is about violence, and the swirling, linked cycles that it creates out of non-existent chaos. There is a mental manifestation of anger on display that exceeds the scripts simplistic devices. What could be a simple morality play turns into a noxious bolt of electricity that’s bound to burn the backside of your brain. The entire shaky enterprise is filmed in handheld black and white, giving it an earthy, frenzied vibe that is almost as hard on one’s equilibrium as the Tetsuo films were.
It’s tries desperately to rip out your eardrums.
This is not fun for fun’s sake. It is an important set piece in Tsukamoto’s arsenal of film, yet viewers unfamiliar with the man’s trademark whims may not be set adrift on memory’s bliss. Often times it is as painful as it is watchable. Bullet Ballet is almost on the verge of being headache inducing, though that is one of its charms. Shinya gives multiple interpretations to the proceedings, and sometimes it’s hard to figure out what’s really going on.
It takes a bit of getting used too, but I like that feeling of insecurity.
I do recommend both of these movies, though I think that 9 Souls is the better picture. Stay tuned. Oral Intercourse will be back with more foreign film goodness for the Bradford Masses in the very near future...