4/11/05:

I hurried across town, having left work early, and met a few friends at the theater--one on purpose, the other by happy mistake. We talked movies, I caught up my buddy Bob on some of the important events in my life, he offered me a way into the film business (which I--perhaps foolishly--declined), and then the movie began.

Films I saw today: Izo, Lakeside Murder Case



Izo

Takashi Miike is one of the most interesting and unpredictable living directors. His films are not always good, but they are always shocking and surprising and different, and I don't think I can say that about any other filmmaker ever. For this reason alone, I feel his movies are worth watching. It's not every day you come across somebody this bold and creative.

This year, Miike has two films in the festival--this one, which is said to be one of the strangest, most violent, and most difficult to watch of all of Miike's films, which is really saying something; and One Missed Call, which is described as his most straightforward, mainstream film to date (keep an eye out for my review of OMC, which I'll be seeing in a few days). After having seen Izo, I'd have to say Gozu (which I wasn't even able to finish viewing) is still the Miike film that is the strangest and most difficult to watch. But Izo is a close second.

At the time, I found Izo alternately pretentious, boring, exciting, agonizing, beautiful, pointless, and deeply meaningful. I walked away from it mildly irritated, because I felt like either I'd very nearly understood what it was really about, or it wasn't really about anything at all and was just playing with me the whole time. Over time, thinking back on it, I've come to like the film more and more, and I've settled into the idea that it is indeed about something--that it is, in fact, a Zen Buddhist allegory about a topic familiar to viewers of the Matrix trilogy: the inevitability of chaos and meaninglessness arising within systems of order, and how that chaos can overthrow an old system to create a new one, thus resulting in an infinite cycle of life out of death that is itself mostly meaningless, but is the essence of our existence on Earth. In this film, the force of rage and vengeance and destruction and anti-establishment is embodied by an invincible samurai named Izo, whose purpose is to kill all people ever to live on Earth. He does this by travelling (rather inexplicably) through time and space, and slashing wildly with his sword.

Though it is loaded with many scenes of brutal violence, which might be termed "action" scenes, do not be fooled--this is not an action film. Nor is it truly a sci fi or fantasy or samurai film. It is an "artsy" film in the extreme, so if that's not your bag, then stay home. I would argue that it has a story, but not really in the conventional sense. The scenes follow one another with a certain internal and metaphorical logic, but not with the real-world logic you might expect. What happens in the scenes is also not always consistent with reality as we know it, but again has a consistency internal to the film. In one scene, Izo might be fighting gangsters in modern Japan, somehow surviving all their gunfire. In the next scene, he might be in a cave at the beginning of everything, having sex with the mother of all creation. In a particularly interesting sequence of events, he is chased through a town in feudal Japan by modern policemen, and then is chased through the streets of a modern Japanese city by feudal Japanese peacekeepers.

Izo's real, ultimate enemies are the men who symbolize law and order and control--a kind of council of rulers who are the power behind everything. Each is the head of a different system--one is the priest of priests, another the General of Generals (and one is played by another great contemporary Japanese filmmaker--Takeshi Kitano). Izo seems to defeat them all finally, but against the man behind them--the Prince--he has no chance. He is destroyed--and born again, so that the cycle may continue.

I won't bore you with my interpretations of each of the scenes in the film, but I do have an interpretation for most of them, which is important to me. An artsy, allegorical film like this one shouldn't be so obvious with its symbolism that watching it is like being hit with a hammer, but it also shouldn't be so opaque that only the director can understand what's going on. The only things that really truly irritate me in this film--both because they're just annoying and because they seem pointless and stupid--are the recurring musical interludes. These are brought to us by a small man in a hat who accompanies random strumming on a guitar with goofy gibberish lyrics wailed at us breathlessly. It's really grating, and I definitely could have done without it.

But all in all, Izo is a fascinating film, and one of Miike's most complete, important, and (I now believe) meaningful films. I definitely need to see it again--to consider it further, and to catch some of the things I'm sure I missed the first time around.

My Poll Rating: Fair (though having now considered the film further, I'd changed that to a Very Good or possibly even an Excellent)

Intermission

After the movie, it was time to say goodbye to my friends (who both enjoyed the film quite a bit more than I did, I might add), and then get back in line again for my next movie. I learned that the director of my next film was present for the screening, which seemed an exciting thing to me...until I actually saw the film...

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Lakeside Murder Case

Lakeside Murder Case is a Japanese film written and directed by Shinji Aoyama, based on the novel by Keigo Higashino. It is part family drama, part murder mystery, part social commentary. I found the family drama and murder mystery parts, which comprise the first half or so of the movie, to be pretty interesting and well done. The social commentary part, however, which fills up the last quarter to half of the movie, I found to be clumsy, corny, preachy, melodramatic, and absolutely agonizing. Although Lakeside Murder Case clocks in at slightly less than two hours, and fails to actually follow up on a number of the stories and mysteries it begins, it is still far longer than it needs to be. The conclusion of the movie drags out with aching slowness as Aoyama spreads the commentary on in thick swaths, going over and over his points until they are played to death, thus ultimately sinking his own film.

It's a shame, because the film starts out pretty promising. Our main character is an advertising director named Shunsuke. Shunsuke is separated from his wife and having an affair with his photographer, but he really loves his daughter and wants to help her get accepted to an exclusive preparatory boarding school, situated on a lakeside out in the country. To that end, his wife and he have agreed to pretend to be a happy couple throughout the difficult and demanding admissions process, which involves all three children and their parents. Unfortunately, Shunsuke is not so good at playing the part; he arrives late and disheveled and performs poorly during his interview with the school's director. Old tensions between he and his wife surface, and things aren't helped at all when the photographer Shunsuke is seeing shows up at the school and refuses to leave.

But a whole new level of difficulty arises when Shunsuke returns from an aborted rendezvous with the photographer to discover that a murder has occurred at the school, and the other parents have agreed to cover it up. He is railroaded into helping them, but as the difficult and tense cover-up process goes on, it becomes more and more clear that the murder did not occur as Shunsuke was originally told, and there's more going on than he realizes.

So much of this part of the movie is so well done. The scenes involving the parents' working together to disfigure the body, hide it, and destroy the evidence are Hitchcokian in the way they fill you with horror, disgust, and edge-of-the-seat tension, and force you to sympathize with the criminals.

But despite giving us some evidence that it was created by a talented filmmaker, ultimately the film feels like it was put together a bit haphazardly, as certain subplots and details are introduced but never amount to anything. For instance, Aoyama makes a point of showing us that Shunsuke has some kind of problem with his eyes. This comes up multiple times, and keeps looking like it's going to lead somewhere, but it never does. There's also a weird feeling of magic and mysticism that recurs throughout the movie but also never goes anywhere. There's the strong suggestion that Shunsuke's wife has visions and is psychic in a limited way, and that her power had a part in the couple's separation, but we never get to learn more about this part of their history, and her abilities, if any, never really become important to the plot. Why introduce these elements and then not do anything with them? If they were going to be part of subplots that you never got a chance to fully develop, why not edit them out altogether in the final cut?

But of course the movie's biggest flaw is its painfully overwrought ending. (WARNING: The rest of this paragraph is spoiler-full.) Basically it turns out that Shunsuke's wife did not kill his mistress, as he was told; in fact, the children worked together to murder the mistress, as they were afraid she would reveal the truth she had discovered--the director of the school was selling the answers to tests to the parents. The children, pressured to succeed and avoid failure and shame at all costs, felt that violence was the only solution to their problem. And the parents, in an attempt to protect the children, decided to cover it all up. This is all revealed in a series of extremely long, extremely melodramatic scenes that involve lots of yelling and crying, and much bemoaning of how parents and society and the educational environment in general, all combine to exert enormous pressure on Japanese children to compete and succeed at all costs. They are given no freedom to grow, and are taught only the joy of winning. Why can't we have a world without winners and losers? And so forth and so on. For me, it was one of those shift-in-my-seat-and-grumble kind of endings.

And then after all this handwringing and blame-placing and social commentary, the movie sticks us with one of those horror movie, scare-you-one-last-time final shots, using special effects to zoom in suddenly on the decaying body of the murder victim where it lies in the river, focusing in on an incriminating piece of evidence still lying nearby, as if to say, "There will be a sequel!" or "See, they won't get away with it!" It's very strange, and doesn't fit the style or tone of any of the three stories the movie has told so far--not the family drama, the murder mystery, or the social comment piece.

I like part of this movie, but the bad parts of it are so bad that they overshadow all the good parts. I can't recommend against it enough.

My Poll Rating: Poor

Epilogue

The end of Lakeside Murder Case was so bad, I ran out of there as soon as the credits started rolling, desperate to escape before the director reappeared and started taking questions. Although, maybe I should have stayed to ask him what the hell he was thinking...

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Jim Genzano





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