The recently prolific Sion Sono actually has a more sporadic film career dating back to the early 1980s though most would judge his real breakthrough to 2001’s Suicide Club. Back in the ‘90s Sono was most active as the leader of anarchic performance art troupe Tokyo Gagaga. Taking inspiration from the avant-garde theatre scene of the 1960s, Tokyo Gagaga took to the streets for flag waving protests and impressive, guerrilla stunts. Bad Film is the result of one of their projects – shot intermittently over a year using the then newly accessible Hi8 video rather the traditionally underground 8 or 16mm, Bad Film is near future set street story centring on gang warfare between the Chinese community and xenophobic Japanese petty gangsters with a side line in shifiting sexual politics.
Momentous things were at play in 1997, not least amongst them the looming handover of Hong Kong when it would cease to operate under British rule and embark upon the “one country, two systems” era with ultimate authority passing to Beijing. Fascism has bloomed in Tokyo with intense anti-foreigner activity targeting all non-Japanese including those from other areas of Asia. By 1997, the yakuza have infiltrated the fascist infrastructure and amped up gang violence between the Chinese community and the ultra-nationalist Japanese.
Fast forward a little and the Chinese and Japanese groups have managed to iron out some of their differences largely thanks to a different kind of divide which ultimately proves a unifying factor – many of the men and women on either side are gay and are sick of the prevailing “hetero hegemony”. Eventually the gay contingent manages to assume control of their respective factions and enact the gay alliance. This is very successful and brings peace and love to the city but unfortunately two members of opposing factions just can’t get over their cultural differences and are prepared to go to great lengths to restart the Japan/China gang war.
Sono shot the entirety of the movie back in 1995 ending up with around 150 hours before abandoning the project for financial reasons. In 2012 Sono re-edited his existing footage into something resembling a feature length film. The project was designed to make use of the entire Tokyo Gagaga company (over 2000 people took part) and was shot guerrilla style with no permits or warnings (you can see at least one face blurred out during their city centre protests). This goes someway to explaining why the narrative diverges unexpectedly at random junctures and the voiceover is there largely to corral the footage into some kind of coherent structure aided by the occasional on screen text. It’s a “Bad Film” in that it’s not quite a film at all but an activist’s poetic documentation of his artistic street warfare even including going so far as to include a justification for the visibility of the cameraman.
Hi8 was what it was – a convenient low-res format for the domestic market. Bad Film is not a pretty film, it looks rough and low rent though that often works in its favour and the film takes on a considered aesthetic that is never concerned with trying to be more than it is. Consequently, it makes the most of its roughness to bring out the grungy, time capsule-esque atmosphere that it’s looking looking for. Sono also experiments with fish eye lenses, odd angles and hand held multi-camera chaos to bring the streets to life. His world is weird, and it’s filmed weird, but it always makes sense in terms of its own particular look.
The action turns on the unexpected love story between two women – one Japanese, and one Chinese, and despite all of the resulting chaos and carnage, the final image we’re left with is one of love. The forces of destruction are those who cannot abandon their hate to live in harmony, subverting this very force for peace and using it to wreak vengeance. Sono launches into absurd mode at full throttle and, as per usual, it’s hard to tell when he’s in earnest and when just being facetious. Bad Film is, loosely speaking, an anti-prejudice themed performance art piece documenting the passion and commitment of the Tokyo Gagaga collective. An interesting case of a belated “director’s cut” Bad Film is necessarily an imperfect beast, but perhaps all the more interesting for it.
Opening sequence (no subtitles)