Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Fantasia ‘13: Bad Film

It was conceived and shot guerilla-style in the mid 1990’s, but its pitched rivalry between Japanese and Chinese street gangs seems timelier today.  Instead of the East China Sea, they battle on the streets of the Koenji and Shinjuku districts in Sion Sono’s Bad Film, which screens tomorrow during the closing night of the 2013 Fantasia International Film Festival.

In 1995, 1997 constituted the near future.  Now it is alternate history, or whatever.  At that time, Sono was more or less leading the Tokyo GAGAGA art collective, whose 2,000 members were the cast and co-conspirators on what is now known as Bad Film.  Reportedly, Sono ran out of funds before completing his DIY epic, but not before shooting one hundred fifty hours of vintage Hi8 footage.  Years later, Sono edited it into narrative shape, so here we go.

With the backing of various criminal organizations, gangs of ethnic supremacists wage war on the streets of Tokyo.  The Japanese Kamikazes and the Chinese Baihubang particularly have it in for each other.  Much to the frustration Shiro (played by the director), things are going badly for the home team.  However, peace is eventually brokered, largely prompted by the romance blossoming between his emotionally scarred sister and Maggie, an apocalyptic pan-handler and part-time member of a lesbian Chinese girl gang.

At first, everything is cool, but some still prefer making war over love.  Complicating matters, Maggie and her comrades make overtures to the closeted Kamikazes, hoping to realign the gangs along gay-straight lines, with their faction on top.  The shiny-headed Kamikaze boss will not appreciate that.  Decidedly homophobic, his tastes run more towards pigs.

Right, if there is anything transgressive missing from Bad Film it is only because Sono forgot to throw it in.  There is also plenty of brawling madness and general eccentricity, but it is not exactly the lost masterpiece some would suggest.  Frankly, it mostly constitutes a street gang melodrama not all that different from a teenaged star-vehicle like Monga, dressed up with all kinds of broadsides against nationalism, traditional morality, and what Tokoyo GAGAGA might sneeringly term “polite society.”

Still, Sono is not bad at all as the flawed but redeemable Shiro and the TG member playing Maggie is quite impressive.  The deliberate echoes of Romeo and Juliet give the proceedings greater tragic heft and Sono’s subversive humor definitely takes no prisoners. Nonetheless, despite everyone’s clear commitment, the two and a half hour-plus running time is a tad excessive, hitting a pronounced patch of doldrums around the one hundred minute mark.

Sono is a bold filmmaker, whose go-for-broke-ness often leads to dropped jaws and/or infectious giddiness.  Bad Film cannot live up to the sheer power of a subsequent masterwork like Love Exposure, but it is a fascinating hybrid of cinema, street theater, and collective wackiness. Recommended for fans of Sono and long, strange cult cinema, Bad Film screens tomorrow night (8/7) at the Imperial Theatre, as this year’s Fantasia comes to a close.