Shion** Sono’s ‘Why Don’t You Play In Hell’ was my favorite film of last year’s Fantastic Fest, and opens today in Austin and New York. It expands to Columbus, Dallas, Houston, Kalamazoo, Kansas City, San Antonio, Yonkers, Cleveland, and Winchester, VA next weekend. Here is my review from last year’s Fantastic Fest.
Shion Sono’s Why Don’t You Play in Hell is basically the kind of midnight movie you expect to see at Fantastic Fest, a wacked out, over-the-top love letter to 35 mm film, about a filmmaking troupe called “The F*ck Bombers” getting twisted up in a gang war between rival Yakuza clans over a little girl from a toothpaste commercial. The surprise of it is that it’s not just weird and goofy, it’s also really good. A wacky, slapstick parody that’s also a gangster caper and a romantic comedy, it’s like Mel Brooks meets Guy Ritchie, juggling genres like flaming chainsaws, and I’ve never seen anything quite like it.
The F*ck Bombers are a group of aspiring filmmakers led by Hirata, an excitable kid with Dudley Moore hair and a lesbian/Disney Channel star vest who promises to die if it means making a masterpiece. Filling out the group are his two friends, a pair of chubby nerds, one guy a master of the dolly shot (he wears roller skates), and a bandanna-headed girl, the self-appointed maestro of the hand-held camera. The film opens with them as high school students, running around filming everything they can on 8mm and telling everyone they meet that they’re going to be filmmakers. They’ve got all the precocious ambition and monomaniacal goals of Wes Anderson protagonists, with none of the awkward, deadpan nature or plaid ascots. They’re sort of like worse-dressed Max Fishers who’ve been railing meth. One day they meet a gangster wannabe named Kitamura when they try to film his gang fight, and Hirata decides he’s found his star. After a bit of explanation, Kitamura joins the F*ck Bombers, and it turns out gangsters like being romanticized and have a flair for the theatrical as much as theatrical folks find gangsters romantic, a symbiotic relationship between entertainment and organized crime that will be a central theme of the movie (and is true of many gangsters, going all the way back to Al Capone).
Elsewhere, a bratty little girl named Mitsuko stars in a toothpaste commercial with a devilishly catchy theme song – giri giri hagi shiri†, let’s go! – and her strangely ubiquitous grinning visage makes her the toast of the town, in that Dell guy/Micro Machines sort of way, at least until her gangster father Muto becomes a liability to the brand and she gets fired. The song becomes a running joke throughout the movie, and if anything proves Sono’s deft mastery of subtle tonal tightrope walking, it’s the way he manages to create, in a fictional world, his own cheesy commercial pop-culture contribution – think “where’s the beef” or “I just saved a bundle on my car insurance.” It’s precisely the kind of worthless yet unforgettable contribution to the zeitgeist that advertisers spend their lives trying to create. Sono basically outdoes ad men at their own job, just for shits and giggles. It’s all but guaranteed that you’ll walk out of the film humming the toothpaste jingle, an example of Why Don’t You Play in Hell not only depicting situations of media bleeding into real life, but actually creating one. It’s like, f*ckin’ meta, maaan.
Meanwhile, the Ikegawa yakuza tries to ambush Muto (played by ubiquitious Japanese character Jun Kunimura, whom you may remember from Kill Bill or Hard Boiled), not counting on Muto’s wife holding them all off in a massacre, which lands her in prison.
Fast forward ten years and everyone is more or less in the same positions they were before, only without the naive optimism of unrealized potential. The F*ck Bombers are the same as in high school, just older and fatter, still dreaming of making that masterpiece. Mitsuko is still a pain in the ass trading off her commercial fame, without many adult roles to show for it. And Muto, on the eve of his wife’s release, is still trying to turn his daughter into a star while fending off challenges from the Ikegawa yakuza. He wants to get Mitsuko her first starring role before his wife gets out of prison, and I think we’ve all seen enough movies to know that that’s going to involve the F*ck Bombers. Sono knows you know that too, the art is in the how.
The way Sono weaves the strands of the story together is complex to the point that I didn’t quite understand exactly what was going on in a few scenes (it’s probably less hard to follow when you’re not trying to simultaneously follow the action and read subtitles), but it has a Naked Gun quality to it, where every scene is so packed with jokes and mini-gags on a micro level that it’s okay if you occasionally don’t know how it’s fitting into the macro plot. Few films are as sound and composition driven as this one, where it powers through every scene on the strength of its own exuberance. Watchable. It’s just watchable.
In the Hirata character, Sono seems to be creating an ideal of the pure filmmaker for himself to strive towards, sort of the way Hunter Thompson does with Kemp in The Rum Diary — the incorruptible, imperturbable, pure artist who’ll never sell out and would give his life for his work. The key to this kind of character is not to try to pass him off as a real person (the way Aaron Sorkin has a tendency to do), but to sort of present him honestly, as an avatar for the creator’s ideals (my own avatar is a ten-dicked werewolf that eats motorcycles). When Hirata’s star Kitamura finally gets fed up with the director’s big talk after ten years with no success, he shouts, “it’s all bullshit!”
To which the director Hirata responds, “Of course it’s bullshit, but it’s holy bullshit.”
I’m not sure I’ve ever heard the goal of film described so perfectly. It’s exactly the attitude the ideal director would have to have, a belief in his own work so strong that he can convince his actors, collaborators, and financiers that he’s making a masterpiece before he’s shot a single frame.
Sono understands that being an auteur requires being this sort of brilliantly naive, semi-delusional quasi huckster. Why Don’t You Play in Hell is his ode to the kind of filmmaker he’d like to be, in the form of a satire about filmmaking as it is.
With the characters on their inevitable collision course, it all eventually flames out in a supernova of violence and ridiculosity that probably could’ve been five or ten minutes shorter. But it’s easy to overlook a little excess. It stems from an abundance of passion, and the rest of the movie wouldn’t have worked without it.
†Something like that. I’m trying to render Japanese phonetically here.
**His name is “Shion” on IMDB, “Sion” on Wikipedia, “Sion” in this year’s Fantastic Fest program, “Shion” in last year’s. I don’t know what the proper version is, but here’s why you see both.