One of my movie-related new year’s resolutions this year was initially just to try and watch a few more older movies I hadn’t seen, but I then decided to be a bit more rigid and instead opted to settle on becoming familiar with some more well-known and acclaimed filmmakers that I’d personally not seen much, if anything from. I decided to split this into what I feel is a fairly manageable format; one director per month, who has an established reputation and body of work, but that I’ve only seen a very small portion of, if anything at all. Then I must try to see at least three films from each director’s filmography, and not just the three most recent ones.
I’m not committing to writing full reviews of each film I see for this though for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I plan on exploring some international filmmakers whose work may well turn out to more on the less accessible side, and I’ll freely admit that sometimes I see a movie that I have trouble connecting with and subsequently don’t know if I can do justice to with a full review. Secondly, I really want to stick with this, and if I start off declaring that I’ll write long-form reviews of all these movies I can see myself falling behind. So, what I will promise to do is write a little bit about each director and the films I see at the end of each month. Let’s see how I do…
For the first month of the year I decided on a more modern filmmaker; Japanese auteur Sion Sono. While I’ve heard of plenty of his movies, I realised that I’d only actually got around to seeing two before, his breakthrough horror Suicide Club from 2001, and his insane, neon drenched post-apocalyptic gangland hip-hop musical Tokyo Tribe which I write a little bit about in 2015 (where it narrowly missed my top 10 of the year). Sono is, in a somewhat familiar sense to his fellow countryman Takashi Miike, known for being both a provocateur and extremely prolific. I actually didn’t realise just how fast the guy works until I started researching which films to watch for this but between 2010 and now he’s made an astonishing 14 features, most of which he wrote as well, along with 6 TV episodes and 2 anthology contributions.
The first film of his I decided on was 2013’s Why Don’t You Play In Hell? (picture above, which should already spark your interest), and about maybe 10 minutes in I felt I’d chosen wisely. It’s a film every bit as nuts as Tokyo Tribe, if not more so. It’s a completely unique and bizarre crime/action movie with comic elements that focuses on a young aspiring film crew attempting to make their own crime epic amidst an actual Yakuza gang war that introduces the movie. Meanwhile a Yakuza boss is trying to make his own film starring his daughter. The film draws a lot of comedy from the young crew, who are so fixate on achieving their dream that they are almost oblivious to the danger they are putting enthusiastically themselves in. Sono’s direction is highly energetic, moving along from one wild scenario to another and leading up to a blood-soaked, cartoonishly violent finale that’s so over-the0top it’s quite hilarious. This film is almost indescribable; it’s crazy, violent, funny, ridiculous and hugely entertaining, and the kind of movie I feel could only have come from Japan.
For the next movie I watched Himizu, a 2011 drama that competed in the prestigious Venice film festival. The film is in some ways a testament to Sono’s rapid turn-around rate as he adapted it from a manga, then altered the story to incorporate elements from the tragic Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami of March that year, and had the film premier only 6 month later. The film is a stark contrast to Why Don’t You Play In Hell? In being a realistic drama of a far more subdued tone. The film shows a side of Japan I’ve rarely seen on film before, mainly taking place in a rain-soaked, run-down, rural area that has been severely affected by the tsunami. The film focuses on a teenage boy, abused by his father and abandoned by his mother, seeks to live peacefully but ultimately turns to violence, along with a girl he forms a bond with. The film captures some striking images of the region and Sono makes an effective use of contrapuntal soundtracking by overlaying numerous lush excerpts of Mozart’s requiem over them. However he does also succumb to using Samuel barber’s overplayed Adagio for Strings in a crucial third act scene that the piece’s familiarity undermines. Overall it’s an effective and powerful piece of cinema, if one that takes a little too long to get to its conclusion.
The next film I chose, horror movie Tag (2015) sees Sono switch right back into insane mode again. Within the first few minutes of this movie, we witness a schoolbus full of teenage girls get shockingly bisected by a gust of wind, with only the protagonist Mitsuko narrowly avoiding such a fate. The film only gets stranger from there. Unlike Himizu, Tag is an extremely fast-paced action-horror that goes to such unusual places it requires some attention to even keep up with. After the comically over-the-top violence of the opening sequence, the film swerves in several surreal directions, dealing with themes of identity and destiny, while packing in some striking horror imagery. For example it takes place in a world seemingly populated entirely by women, in which people all seem to know Mitsuko despite her not knowing who any of them are. This is another totally singular movie though that’d I’d advise avoiding further information on and just watching, I’d highly recommend it to all horror fans.
My fourth choice was Guilty of Romance, a film I think was somewhat mis-sold with an international poster/DVD cover that makes it look like a horror movie. The film is in fact much more of a drama, though it begins with the discovery of a grisly murder scene that doesn’t ultimately appear to have much to do with the overall film (at least not the version I saw, the international 113 minute cut, I understand there’s a longer cut only available in Japan). The main plot of the film is actually more of an update on Bunuel’s Belle du Jour, focusing on Izumi (Megumi Kagurazaka), the wife of a novelist stuck in a loveless marriage who after initially accepting a modelling job from a stranger, moves further and further into the realms of prostitution. The film is constantly interesting, but it’s the hardest to recommend of this bunch as I think it will prove to be quite divisive. I have little doubt that the film is empowering to women in its intentions (a couple of the most memorable and amusing moments make this explicitly clear), but whether it will be generally interpreted that way is something I’m personally less certain of. For myself, I found it quite fascinating, even when it ultimately builds to a slightly more predictable finale.
Overall, I couldn’t be happier with my choice of director for this first month. I’m left realising that I think I’m quite a fan of Sion Sono, that, just from this small group, his work is considerably more varied than I had expected, and that he may well be some kind of mad genius. I think I’d assign all of these films 4/5 ratings. While I will be moving on to a new director for February, I think I’m going to try and track down as many more Sono films as I can. I already have his most celebrated film, 4 hour epic Love, Exposure and I can’t wait to watch it.