High atop a building, on the set of a zombie horror movie shoot, a man is shouting at the top of his lungs and threatening to kill himself. Meet Daisuke Baba, a crew member of minimal importance in charge of putting together the ‘making of’ footage for the movie. For the 90 minutes that follow, he will test people’s patience and get on nerves as the antihero/protagonist of Japanese movie The Brat! (The Japanese title is ‘Kusogaki no Kokuhaku’ which translates into ‘The Brat’s Confession’).
The Brat! is one of a few films in this summer’s barrage of Asian movies (brought to us by the New York Asian Film Festival and Japan Cuts) with a movie being made within it. And it's one of two Japanese films where said movies within the movies are zombie flicks. Yet, The Brat! is closer in spirit to Hong Kong’s Vulgaria, both firing off a rebel yell of resistance from a young and fired up generation of filmmakers.
Before Daisuke can complete his rooftop rant, he is startled by a zombified actress, Momoko, who’s made her way to the same spot for a break from the filming. After the supporting actress expresses interest in being interviewed by Daisuke, they take turns doing their most guttural zombie moans, as she has asked him to give her tips on improving her performance. This marks the beginning of an awkward relationship between these two minor players on the film set, both of whom need to be regarded carefully before we in the audience presume to know who they are.
Daisuke, with his constant laments, is sure to pull in many a casual reviewer who sees him as rallying figure for those that insist on following one’s artistic dream, and those that are treated unfairly for having less attractive features. These are the focal points of his tirades: that the work being put his way compromises his pursuit of a pure vision and that he is not taken seriously because of his appearance; he seems to wear a permanent scowl no matter his feeling. While his frustrations may reflect some valid challenges to those with less glamorous paths, his constant remarks about these hardships should not necessarily be taken at face value. Add to the picture the fact that he lives at home with his elderly mother in a room adorned with pro wrestling figures and masks, and takes little interest in finding a steady source of income despite his mother’s pleas for him to do so. Even when bestowed with greater responsibility and the chance to take the lead on directing a feature related to the main horror film being made, he shirks this off, or rather uses it as a chance to get closer to Momoko. Daisuke takes a liking to her since the fateful day on the rooftop. His lack of experience being with other women taken along with her outgoing friendliness toward him makes her a potential first girlfriend for the would be director.
With these shortcomings in mind, Daisuke Baba joins a long line of late blooming flawed characters, going back at least to Ignatius from the novel Confederacy of Dunces, and following with more than a passing resemblance to Billy (Vincent Gallo) in Buffalo 66, fellow failure at love in contemporary Japan, Toshiyuki from Boyz on the Run, and rather interestingly he shares some parallels with Swanson, the main character in the Rick Alverson directed, Tim Heidecker starring indie dark horse, The Comedy...to name just a few. What these characters share is that they never uncategorically change or learn a lesson. They are too realistically defective for that. And yet, there is something likeable that surfaces in their character; in some cases it is simply their resolute stubbornness in remaining who they are but it also includes a break, no matter how slight, in their demeanor. A willingness to bend a little if not change altogether, and in the case of Daisuke, it is in his gesture towards another instead of his constant pining in self pity where we find his well-hidden appeal.
In Daisuke’s pursuit of Momoko, we have a refreshing wrinkle in the usual turn of events that finds inadequate boy miraculously getting the perfect girl. While at first seeming very much in control, Momoko turns out to have disturbing traits that rival those of Daisuke. The footage he shot on set, which led to him being charged with a documentary-like side project, honed in on Momoko convulsing horrifyingly in the background of an action scene. With the actress then removing herself from the movie shoot altogether, Daisuke pursues the nature of her malady, at first exploring the possibility of her being haunted by literal demons (encountered perhaps on a haunted movie set) and then facing the existence of figurative ones, manifestations of a very troubled psyche.
This leads to a surprising portrayal of unhinged suffering from Sayaka Tashiro, whose first time(!) this is starring in a feature. Her performance here is raw and unsettling. And of course, Hiroki Konno, who is the brat, is impressive too. Like the far more repellant subject of The Comedy, Daisuke borders on completely irredeemable -- the abuse he hurls at his mother when she refuses to cook for him until he finds a steady job -- while there are moments that embrace such an illogical and abrasive path, they take on an innocence that endears the character to the audience. It is all pulled off with unique quirks and mannerisms.
If The Brat! is not a film about following through with one’s vision or defying superficial judgments of a person’s merit, then what? Unrealized desire for one, and the many paths it could lead a person down. Unending secret longing, vicious assaults on others both verbally and physically, moving on in a new direction, even suicide...all of these avenues are explored. Both Daisuke and Momoko encounter the physical manifestations of their desires in the form of the internal movie’s debonair director and its rising starlet. Yet, their sympathetic behavior toward the imperfect pair seems to further raise their ire.
Amid all this despair and frustration lies the potential to make distant fantasies into a reality, even if it is not in the manner one initially hoped for. Here lies, for Daisuke, a renewed sense of purpose centered not only around himself, but the salvation of another. The tone changes from wallowing to empowering. While not, as it may first seem, about making one’s vision come true, it is about finding out what in fact that vision is.
The conclusion is where this film’s magic trick lies, after a somewhat shaky narrative. It is anything but a smooth ride. What comes is a riveting instance of primal scream therapy between the two main characters, which holds surprisingly little back in a culture that still maintains rituals of distance and restraint.
Pulling off the creation of this kind of offbeat character is an impressive feat for newcomer writer/director Taichi Suzuki. With The Brat! also filled with raw moments about the frustration of filmmaking, he’s created a debut feature that is not always perfect, but makes a bold and not soon forgotten impression.
The Brat! is being shown as part of the Japan Cuts festival, taking place at the Japan Society, Saturday July 28, at 7:00 PM.
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