Friday, July 14, 2017

Japan Cuts ’17: Hengyoro (Queer Fish Lane)

Underwater plastic surgery is a dirty job, but somebody has to do it. Fortunately, eccentric elderly vagabonds Tarugani and Papajo have more reputable side jobs staging chain plays that incorporate stagecraft, film, and traditional Okinawan music. The underlying mythology is rich, but narrative logic isn’t much of a priority for Go Takamine’s Hengyoro (Queer Fish Lane) (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film in New York.

Something happened long ago that wiped out most of the population of Patai Village, but Tarugani and Papjo still shuffle around like ghosts. Frankly, things make more sense when they are mounting their chain plays, featuring eerie looking Super8 footage Takamine shot on Okinawa in the 1970s.

Episodic in nature, we watch the strange misadventures of a bag of an illegal aphrodisiac purchased instead of flour. Wrongly blamed for inappropriately acquiring the potent powder, Tarugani goes about his professional practice editing film and faces, while trying to elude the Bibiju, the three supernaturally damp wives of the aphrodisiac-peddling shopkeeper, who are dead set on cutting his ears.

Whatever. Don’t try to make sense of Hengyoro. While bits and pieces make sense in isolation, it is baffling as a whole. This is self-consciously experimental cinema that makes no concessions. Yet, it is easier to watch than you might expect, because Takamine is constantly pulling off wild in-camera visual tricks. Even if you have no patience for the avant-garde, it is strangely compelling to watch him top himself. In fact, it is no hyperbole to say cinematographer Mamoru Hirata’s work is frequently stunning. The traditional Okinawan soundtrack is also starkly powerful.

Takamine is probably best known internationally for the socially conscious, deliberately paced Paradise View, but that film will feel like Guardians of the Galaxy compared to Hengyoro. Still, it is often fascinating to look at and listen to—and that’s definitely something. Recommended for devoted patrons of experimental cinema, Hengyoro (Queer Fish Lane) screens Saturday (7/15) at the Japan Society, as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.