Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Takashi Miike’s First Love

These are Takashi Miike’s kind of people. They live extreme, nocturnal lives on the margins of respectable society. They are Yakuza, Triads, pimps, prostitutes, and crooked cops. Many of them will not live through the night. It will be gangster vs. gangster vs. outcast in Miike’s First Love, which opens this Friday in New York.

Leo is a talented but passionless boxer, who was quite surprised to get TKO-ed by a flukey punch. Sadly, it turns out his knock-out was the result of an inoperable brain tumor. While mulling over this depressing news, he stumbles across young woman in need of saving, so he does.

Yuri, now known as “Monica” was sold into prostitution by her abusive father. Her pimp deliberately hooked her on smack to keep her docile. That would be her late pimp, a victim of the gang war the ambitious but dumb as a post Kase has instigated between his Yakuza clan and the invading Triads, so he can redirect a considerable shipment of heroin during the ensuing mayhem. It certainly does ensue. Unfortunately for him, he is too successful, igniting an underworld battle royale. Soon, vengeful prostitutes and corrupt coppers join the fray. Yet, somehow, Leo does whatever it takes to keep Monica alive, because he has nothing to lose.

First Love shares some thematic similarities with dozens of Miike’s films (Yakuza Apocalypse comes readily to mind), but the execution is deliriously super-charged and maniacal. Arguably, this could be the purest, most perfectly representative Miike film of his entire body of work thus far (over 100 features, and counting). It is violent, chaotic, and breakneck fast, but it also has far more heart and soul than many of his prior beatdowns. Essentially, this is his take on The Warriors, but with a spoonful of O. Henry dolloped on top.

Masataka Kubota absolutely commands the screen as Leo. Granted, he initially comes across as detached and reserved, but he definitely shines down the stretch. Sakurako Konishi is arrestingly naïve and vulnerable as Monica, despite her habit and hallucinations. In contrast, nobody out-crazies the utterly berserk “Becky” as “Julie,” the enraged, payback-seeking prostitute. Mami Fujioka also helps counterbalance Monica’s passivity with her impressive action chops portraying a syndicate enforcer. Then there is the colossal goofball stupidity of Shota Sometani’s scheming Kase, which is truly an impressive spectacle.

Miike throws everything up on the screen, including a super slick animated sequence. This is a real kitchen sink movie, yet he manages to keep it feeling gritty and grounded. It is all wildly hilarious, tasteless, violently bloody, and generally over the top in every conceivable way. In short, it is the perfect family film. Recommended with unrestrained enthusiasm, First Love opens this Friday (9/27) in New York, at the Angelika Film Center.