Wednesday, July 09, 2014

NYAFF ’14 & Japan Cuts ’14: Why Don’t You Play in Hell?

Which is a greater menace to society, the Yakuza or independent filmmakers? It hardly matters, because when they join forces, there will be blood on the floor. We are talking wall-to-wall pooling here. Yes, this is a Sion Sono joint, so get your game face on when Why Don’t You Play in Hell? (trailer here) screens as a joint presentation of the 2014 New York Asian Film Festival and Japan Cuts.

Ten years ago, scruffy would be teen filmmaker Hirata Don and his two camera-operating chums first met Sasaki, their supposed martial arts star. On that fateful day, they also crossed paths with Jun Ikegami, a profusely bleeding yakuza. He was supposed to assassinate Taizo Muto, a rival clan leader, but they ran into his wife Shizue instead. Only Ikegami survives her wrath, but not before getting a severe dressing-down from her ten year old daughter, Michiko.

Michiko had been well on her way to being Japan’s sweetheart, based on her perversely catchy TV toothpaste commercial, but her mother’s murder convictions derail her career. Feeling understandably indebted to his wife, Muto promises to establish their daughter in the movies before her release. However, the now punky and petulant Michiko walked away from her legit film debut, forcing the studio to recast. With mere days left before Shizue’s parole, Muto needs to find a production for Michiko fast. You see where this is going? Eventually, Don’s dubious crew will hook up with Muto’s clan, but everyone thinks the director is Koji Hashimoto, a poor schmuck on the street Michiko roped into her madness.

With no time to write a proper script, Don opts to film Muto’s war with Ikegama verite-style. Buckle up, because there is going to be a body count. When it comes to over-the-top, outrageously gory comedic violence, Sono’s latest film stands tall, in a field all its own. The sheer level of mayhem Sono unleashes in the third act would even leave Itchy & Scratchy slack-jawed. It is impressive.

Amid all the carnage, there is also something of a valentine to filmmaking and an affectionate eulogy for old school 35mm. It also features one of the greatest and fiercest performances by a child actor, maybe ever, but it will probably be a good eight or ten years before Hara Nanoka’s parents let her see her work as young Michiko. As the older Michiko, NYAFF Rising Star Award winner Fumi Nikaido smoothly picks up the baton and proceeds to bash just about everyone with it. It is a butt-kicking star turn, but nobody can out hard-nose Jun Kunimura (Boss Tanaka in Kill Bill vol. 1, which seems so tame in comparison) as the steely but devoted Muto.

On the Sion Sono spectrum, this is more polished than Bad Film, but more ragged around the edges than Love Exposure. Regardless, whatever you think WDYPIH is, raise it to a power of ten. Highly recommended for cult film connoisseurs who have a general idea what they are getting into, Why Don’t You Play in Hell? screens tomorrow (7/10) at the Japan Society, as a joint selection of this year’s NYAFF and Japan Cuts.