Fantastic Fest Screening 1: Greatful Dead

Sometimes independent films feel like undiscovered gems, and other times they feel like works that just aren’t quiiiite good enough to be popular on a meaningful level. Greatful Dead, a film out of the Japanese indie scene, strikes me as an example of the latter.

I chose to see this one, screening simultaneously with the Machete II premiere, rather than Machete II, because I prefer to forever think of Machete II as the 15 or so minutes of trailers and sizzle reels available online, the really wacky idea part, rather than suffer the inevitable disappointment that I imagine would come with being bored by a lady shooting bullets out of her tits.

So instead I went to see Greatful Dead (aka the much more awesome-sounding Japanese version, “Gureitofuru deddo”), a film from director Eiji Uchida, who was in attendance, along with lead actress Kumi Takiuchi. Emcee Marc Walkow told us all to congratulate ourselves for supporting Japanese independent films, which we did, before settling in for a film that had a lot of interesting ideas, but not much in the way of connections between them. Greatful Dead is a bit of a headscratcher.

Takiuchi plays Nami, who starts out as a young girl whose mother only cares about helping third world children and not Nami, and her father only cares about her mother, and not Nami. Eventually her mother runs off to the Third World and her father commits suicide. The abrupt “yadda yadda yadda he’s dead” way this was delivered was probably my favorite part of the film. We skip forward to Nami in her twenties, now plump-breasted and muscular legged (Takiuchi, in her first feature role, is almost distractingly attractive) but obsessed with spying on “solitarians,” those lonely people who have no friends and actively shun society.

Nami is obsessed with loneliness, and the idea of being born and dying alone (which she tells us numerous times via voice over). Apparently the aging, lonely elderly are a big issue in Japan, and theoretically the subject of the film. But then Nami becomes obsessed with a crotchety old man, which eventually leads to kidnapping, Cialis rape, and murder, and the loneliness theme gets muddled up with religion, obsession, double crosses, and weird fetishes in a way that doesn’t quite make sense and isn’t visually interesting enough to justify itself alone. It’s either too weird or not weird enough. The Japanese sure do like their gore though.

Like so many close-but-no-cigar indie films, the climax involves a lot of running and chasing without you being much invested in it, followed by a twist ending that sort of explains some of the plot that came before it, but not in a way that makes it more compelling.

After that, Uchida and Takiuchi came back out onstage with host Marc Walkow and their translator. Perhaps not surprisingly, the first audience question to Takiuchi started with “You’re very pretty…”

Uchida was asked about the religious themes in the film, and said that he’d grown up in Brazil, surrounded by Christianity, and wanted to use it as a theme in his film to show the world that Japan also has a religious community. This goal seemed slightly strange and disconnected from the film in the same way that the ideas in the film felt strange and disconnected from each other. You know how sometimes when you and another person think in similar ways, you can tell during conversations when they skip the same parts and add in the exact kinds of backstory that you would? Where you can sort of skip the connective tissue when you talk to one another? Or the opposite, when someone’s trying to make a point and they’re skipping around from example to example and you can’t quite figure out how they’re got from one place to the next, and you keep having to stop them to ask questions? Uchida and I, I’m pretty sure, would be more like the second.

The other highlight was Walkow’s somewhat discursive questions, where he would sort of try to figure out what he wanted to ask as he was asking it, not always successfully. It’s something I’m often guilty of myself, which you’ll know if you’ve ever listened to the audio of one of my interviews, but which is that much funnier to watch when those discursive questions have to go through a translator. At one point, the translator even stopped Walkow to ask, “so what was your question?”

As a result, Takiuchi was frequently befuddled, in a suitably adorable way. At one point, Walkow tried to step in to paraphrase an audience member’s question, making it much longer in the process (“Ooh, good question, sir, I think I know what you’re saying…”). The ensuing double translation nearly had me in tears.  All in all, a fun night, if not a great movie. I never did find out why it was spelled “Greatful,” by the way. Maybe I missed the point of the entire film.

(photo credit: Arnold Wells for Drafthouse)

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