DB Here- This week it's a good number of films from the director Sabu. Many of the film appeared at the retrospective that the Japan Society ran at the end of January and the beginning of February. The reviews are being split between Mondocurry and myself, and it's to his assured hand that I turn for the first film of both our series and that of the Japan Society retrospective, Monday.
Over the years, I’ve encountered many Japanese indie films that made me wonder why someone or ‘ones’ deemed them worthy of foreign distribution in the face of other possibilities. I’ll refer to just a few. There’s the film that jumps back and forth between scenes of senseless murder and hopeless drug addiction, while everyone is too bored to care about any of it. Another that comes to mind ends up being a pretty pointless sexploitation flick with a plot that makes no sense, whose big selling point is the fact that someone was wearing a rubber George Bush mask. I’m too polite to kiss and tell, but if you want to seek those movies out, they aren’t that hard to find.
All the while, within the same time frame of those movies’ releases, a little director named Sabu had been building an impressive resume of films that are visually interesting, excitingly paced, and not at all shy of taking on important themes. It’s fitting then that when Sabu gets his turn at some North American exposure, it’s nothing less than a full blown retrospective. The organizer at Japan Society (who would appear to be the man filling the role of their Senior Film Program Officer, Samuel Jamier) went all out, bringing the understated director onstage for q & a’s after half of the six films being screened, and giving the series a nifty trailer (edited by Yasu Inoue, who also made the galvanizing trailers for the 2010 NYAFF and Japan Cuts festivals.)
So, what surprises did the first of the series, Monday, have in store? It starts off with the archetypal Japanese ‘salaryman’ (re: white collar worker, middle management level at most, and highly prone to job dissatisfaction and binge drinking) waking up in a drab hotel room on a Monday morning, trying to account for how the last 48 hours of his lost weekend were spent. The first incident comes into focus and shows a funeral ceremony in progress. For a few long moments it is eerily quiet, so much so that I wondered if there was a glitch in the screening booth with the audio. Then, as dialogue gradually trickles into the scene, things get instantly hilarious. The odd verbal exchange is the sort of uneasy conversational humor that early Tarantino films were made famous for, except here, the absence of catch phrases and posturing celebrities makes it come off far more naturally. The grave ceremony ends up being mischievously intertwined with a time worn action movie trope that has played out the ending of countless shoot ‘em up movies. And we realize we are in the hands of a master storyteller.
What follows is a back and forth shift between the sordid events of the protagonist’s weekend and groggily bewildered hotel scenes (which at first, might not seem to matter, but later prove to be crucial to the story). The flashbacks become increasingly edgy as Sabu turns up the danger, as well as the weird. It probably wouldn’t be a Sabu movie if the Yakuza weren’t somehow involved, and here we get the very funny outcome of our salaryman stumbling into a Yakuza gathering and unwittingly disrupting their world. The humor reaches a fever pitch thanks to Shinichi Tsutumi’s (an actor who plays the lead in many of Sabu’s works) sensational knack for physical comedy. He imparts a hysterical, self-mocking dance routine oozing with over-confidence and goofiness. The music playing in the background is a wildly energizing dance track by Tokyo techno artist Captain Funk, and here I give credit to Sabu for using music by a fellow Japanese artist while still making it a priority to put together an excellent-rather-than-just-adequate soundtrack.
And then, things become sharply, radically, unexpectedly different. At this point, for the benefit of those of you that like their film viewing experiences to be a full-on surprise, with no warning of any bumps, twists, or turns along the way, and are convinced that this is a movie worth checking out, I encourage you to stop reading and make it a goal to see this movie. Fair warning, though, it may entail a trip to Japan and a Tsutaya membership card, or at least, a generous pen pal and a region free dvd player.
Even with events taking a violent turn, Sabu could have easily kept them in the realm of slick, stylish, and overall inconsequential (which is where most of Tarantino’s works tended to stay). But he doesn’t. All that had transpired takes on an unsettling reality for the main character and the audience watching. The weight of it all sends the protagonist into a panic, not only about his future fate, but the moral implications of his actions. It was interesting to note how, in the theater, the uproarious laughter at all of the gallows humor was later reduced to a few nervous titters. You could imagine the thinking running through people’s minds: “we’re supposed to be laughing, aren’t we?” Sabu leads on, though, uncompromisingly, and with no promises of what is to come.
The changeup is more than a little jarring. It’s the sort of thing that sends conventional moviegoers and I suppose overseas distributors running for the hills, but Sabu has too much on mind to be concerned about that. One thing Sabu is not is subtle, and serious issues, such as unchecked authority, glorified perceptions of violence, and the questionable right to take justice into one’s own hands, come to the forefront, even debated openly by the main character and those he confronts.
Despite the mood change, Sabu, who is perhaps just too darned gifted a showman to bum us out completely, continues to interject moments that are funny and also fantastical; a few times the main character is literally chased by demons that hiss and claw their way across the screen. The action convalesces into nothing less than a frantic, full on spectacle, which seems to be a trademark of his films. The scene makes us aware of the film’s complete transformation: What started as a trifle of a comedy has wound its way into becoming a media frenzy of heavily armed riot police, reporters, numerous onlookers, and our once bumbling salaryman protagonist.
The film ends with less an answer than a question posed to the audience: what would you do? What will you do? And Monday, with all of its unanticipated turns, has proven to be a thrilling ride.
DB once again- Chris Bourne has posted the Q&A that followed the screenings of Monday and Dagan Runna (aka Non Stop) at the Japan Society. They both can be found here.