by Chris Mello

by Chris Mello Retrospective Film

Why Don’t You Play in Hell? | Sion Sono

August 26, 2016
Why Don't

There’s a moment late in Why Don’t You Play in Hell? that neatly sums up Sion Sono’s distinctive vision. A boy crawls through a blood-soaked room to be next to the girl he loves, a girl he’s only just met — and there’s a sword running through his head as he does this, transforming him into a sort of grotesque unicorn. As in many of Sono’s best films, the extravagant violence here is motivated by grandiose emotions. And while it makes loud proclamations about the importance of cinema—this is a movie about moviemaking—the sheen of 35mm nostalgia is but a device to carry characters to the sorts of bold, often blood-soaked emotional climaxes that Sono has made his stock-in-trade. After all, while the aforementioned scene takes place on a film set, the violence is as real as the stakes which are the result of real interpersonal tension, rather than the creation of a wild young director. That director, Hirata (Hiroki Hasegawa), leads a crew of filmmakers dubbed “The Fuck Bombers,” whose dreams of 35mm glory are grounded by the reality of inexpensive DV productions. When gangster Muto’s (Jun Kunimura) film production—a gift for his wife on her return from prison—is interrupted by his daughter, Mitsuko (Fumi Nikaidou), running away from set, he must turn to Hirata, who comes up with a plan to film the gang’s attack on their rivals, led by the ridiculous Ikegami (Shin’ichi Tsutsumi).

Sono’s head isn’t stuck in the past; his film thrives on fresh, youthful energy and ultimately warns against the fog of nostalgia.

The resulting climax plays like Kill Bill’s Crazy 88s sequence on amphetamines, complete with a combatant in Bruce Lee’s yellow jumpsuit. The star of this climax is Mitsuko, who slices through waves of Yakuza, sometimes leaving rainbows in her wake, producing some of the most indelible images in all of Sono’s filmography. As in Himizu, Fumi Nikaido proves herself to be an ideal actress for Sono, capable of pulling off every tonal shift the director employs with abandon and communicating emotional depths in moments of deranged violence—her best scene finds her forcing a kiss on an unfaithful boyfriend with a shard of glass on her tongue. Mitsuko is running from her family, and the gang rivalry in play has a long history—Why Don’t You Play In Hell? has a clear affection for the past, right down to Ikegami’s effort to restructure his gang to mimic the clans of feudal Japan, leading to their newfound penchant for kimono-wearing. The Fuck Bombers’ own warmth towards the past comes both from a love of celluloid and a fear of aging out of their aspirations. With everyone out to recapture something of a past glory, cinematic nostalgia, as prominent as it is, is ultimately just another remembered thing. Despite this, Sono’s head isn’t stuck in the past; his film thrives on fresh, youthful energy and ultimately warns against the fog of nostalgia—which leads every character who succumbs to it to their inevitable doom. You can play your film in hell, but it will cost you your life.

by Chris Mello Retrospective Film

Noriko’s Dinner Table | Sion Sono

August 17, 2016
Noriko's Dinner Table

Though it sports a few grisly images of its own, Noriko’s Dinner Table borrows most of its bloodshed from its companion film, Suicide Club. Sono repurposes the opening of his breakthrough—during which 54 high school students jump in front of an oncoming train—several times here, first for context and later for impact. But rather than repeat himself, Sono fashions Noriko’s Dinner Table as a melodrama about the dissolution of family and the creation of oneself in the internet era. Its most harrowing moment finds a family on the verge of reunion as two runaway sisters—their ‘true’ selves lost to a cycle of performative self-discovery—enter a replica of their childhood home, while their father hides in a wardrobe, waiting to surprise his daughters and reunite his family after a two year absence. Were this film by another filmmaker, this potential reunion might be a source of joy for members of the family. Instead, Sono’s vision of a reunion is a horror movie scenario in which the monster in the closet threatens to destroy the lives the girls have found for themselves and force them back into the roles they were born into.

While it is a companion filmtaking place before, during and after the events of Suicide ClubNoriko’s Dinner Table is only tangentially interested in explaining its predecessor’s mystery, instead using a rash of suicides to craft its own metaphor about the roles we play in relation to each other. “If some people are lions, others must be rabbits. Some must die for the rest to truly live,” a representative of the Suicide Club tells us, revealing that most members of the club don’t kill themselves because it is not their role. Out of this comes the story of sisters Noriko (Kazue Fukiishi) and Yuka (Yuriko Yoshitaka), who meet a girl from the internet, Kumiko (Tsunami), who may or may not be the leader of the Suicide Club. All we know for certain is that Kumiko’s past is a fabrication (she claims to have been born in a locker) and that she runs a family rental business through which lonely people can purchase the illusion for however long they can afford it. Noriko and Yuka join Kumiko’s business while their father, Tetsuzo (Ken Mitsuishi), frantically searches for answers about the club he believes his daughters are involved with.

Sono’s companion film to his Suicide Club crafts a metaphor about the roles every human plays in relation to one another.

But by the time Tetsuzo finds them, Noriko and Yuka have taken on new personalities entirely—they’ve found themselves through performing as other people. Both are unrecognizable as the girls that they once were, not only to their father but to themselves; the identities they first created as online avatars have extended outside of virtual space. Every major character in Noriko’s Dinner Table is given an internal monologue to emphasize the nature of both a perceived self and the self they project to others. Form further complements theme as Sono so often employs sustained takes to focus on the heightened performances of his subjects who, as per his film’s context, always seem on the verge of suicide. In the end, we are presented with the choice to either fall back into performing our given roles or go out in search of new ones. And in a film without easy answers, Sono ultimately doesn’t seem to prefer either.

Part of Sion Sono: Love Leaves Destruction in Its Wake.

by Chris Mello Retrospective Film

Decisive Match! Girls Dorm Against Boys Dorm | Sion Sono

August 5, 2016
Girls Dorm

Watching his 1988 film Decisive Match! Girls Dorm Against Boys Dorm, it’s hard not to imagine what a post-Suicide Club Sion Sono would do with this premise. Today, the battle-of-the-sexes set-up would likely lead the director to make a polished film of outsized violence and exuberant melodrama, as invested in bloodshed as it is youthful romance. But Sono’s second feature only occasionally offers glimpses of the strengths the director would later become known for. Take, for example, “the Boss” (Hiromi Kawanishi), the tough-as-nails leader of the girls’ dormitory who derives menace from her eyepatch-mimicking glasses and her sensual affection for an assault rifle. Though otherwise underdeveloped, her look and demeanor would fit perfectly in Sono’s Love Exposure or Tokyo Tribe. But the Boss, as well as a general penchant for weirdness (in one scene, a toy octopus walks across a table, apropos of nothing) are the only links to Sono’s future success in a movie that instead bears all the hallmarks of the director’s pre-breakthrough period: loose narrative threading, low production values, and a self-reflexivity spurred by Sono’s own onscreen presence. As a result, the potentially explosive narrative is underserved by slapdash form, and fizzles out in a frustrating fnale.

All the hallmarks of Sono’s pre-breakthrough period: loose narrative threading, low production values, and a self-reflexivity spurred by the director’s own onscreen presence.

Under the Boss’ leadership, the denizens of the girls’ dorm plan to plant themselves in the International Women’s Marathon, as part of a plot against the boys’ dorm. The extent of their intentions beyond this remains unclear, even when the apparent plan is put into action. During the marathon, the girls run through the streets, followed by boys with toy guns, and a nauseatingly shaky camera. (Sono’s appearance as the cameraman serves only to justify the shoddy handheld work.) This is supposed to be a triumphant climax, but the lack of clarity surrounding it, and the meandering rhythm of the film in general, render the marathon emotionally affectless. More successful are scenes focused on the romantic relationships the girls form with their ostensible enemies. Much of the film in fact focuses on the breakdown of these couplings, as dorm loyalty leads to betrayal, deceit, and domestic espionage. Unfortunately, these scenes are often so underlit as to approach unwatchability. The force with which pairings are torn apart sometimes breaks through the aesthetic inscrutability enough for a moment of human pain to register, but Sono is more often content to simply linger on a solitary subject, in a state of quietude—a mundane focus at best, and sometimes a voyeuristic perversity—rather than continue exploring interpersonal dynamics. And so, as with the rest of the film, a dull aesthetic overpowers intrinsically rich material.

Part of Sion Sono: Love Leaves Destruction in Its Wake.

by Chris Mello Current Film

Ip Man 3 | Wilson Yip

February 10, 2016

The most admirable aspect of Wilson Yip’s Ip Man movies is their disinterest in typical biopic aspirations. Instead these films favor strong martial arts action and introspective melodrama. Previous installments have reduced the relationship between Ip and his most famous student, Bruce Lee, to little more than a cursory head-nod, marginalizing the grandmaster’s real life legacy in favor of a melange of superheroic ass-whoopings. In these films, Ip Man is much more Continue Reading

by Chris Mello Current Film

Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb | Shawn Levy

December 23, 2014

Shawn Levy’s third Night at the Museum film immediately announces its most disconcerting element— its retrograde Orientalist bent—by opening with a 1934 archaeological excavation in Egypt, which, as is the case with most adventure-film flashback prologues of this kind, establishes a cursed object. In this case, the object in question is the Tablet of Ahkmenrah, which, in the present day, is the source of the magic that brings all the exhibits of the Museum of Natural History to life at night. Continue Reading

by Chris Mello Current Film

Inherent Vice | Paul Thomas Anderson

December 17, 2014

Many consider Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel Inherent Vice to be a minor work; the New York Times’ review dubbed it “Pynchon Lite.” Choosing a seriocomic yarn about a perpetually weed-affected private dick as the source material for his seventh feature might have seemed like similarly trivial territory for Paul Thomas Anderson after There Will Be Blood and The Master, two grim films about corrupt, powerful men. But “minor” ultimately means little with these artistic giants in their respective fields. Continue Reading

by Chris Mello Current Film

Annabelle | John R. Leonetti

October 9, 2014

The success of James Wan’s The Conjuring last year, like that of Paranormal Activity back in 2009, points to a wave of purely affective horror cinema, less concerned with feeding on social anxieties of their time than with crafting jump scares and a spooky atmosphere. In doing so, these films add up to little more than empty thrill rides that quickly fade once the movies end. So Annabelle, John R. Leonetti’s prequel to The Conjuring, theoretically has Continue Reading

by Chris Mello Current Film

The Boxtrolls | Graham Annable & Anthony Stacchi

September 26, 2014

Having been put on the map by Coraline and Paranorman, stop-motion studio Laika returns with The Boxtrolls, a film which, while ostensibly possessing the same eye-catching visuals as the studio’s previous features, mostly feels warmed over, calling to mind not only both its predecessors, but also the tolerance-themed narratives of dozens of other animated films. There’s not much here we haven’t seen before, down to once-exciting character designs whose Continue Reading

by Chris Mello Current Film

A Walk Among the Tombstones | Scott Frank

September 24, 2014
A Walk Among The Tombstones

After opening with a swaggering bit of drunken police violence, Scott Frank’s A Walk Among the Tombstones spends its runtime bathing in its characters’ moral and psychological muck. With a grimy, pre-Y2K New York as its setting — updating Lawrence Block’s 1992 novel by seven years to place its old-school, hard-boiled detective at odds with an evolving, vaguely threatening technological landscape — the film possesses a starker aesthetic than many of its sleeker contemporaries (including recent Liam Neeson vehicles like Taken and Non-Stop), filled as it is Continue Reading

by Chris Mello Current Film

Honeymoon | Leigh Janiak

September 16, 2014

The scenario behind Leigh Janiak’s debut feature Honeymoon is one of the most common in the horror genre: A newlywed couple spends their honeymoon at a cabin in the woods and everything goes horribly wrong. But while it never goes so far as to fully subvert the tropes it trades on, it refreshes those clichés with material that is as emotionally resonant as it is utterly terrifying. Honeymoon, surprisingly, turns out to be Continue Reading