The Liar and His Lover (カノジョは嘘を愛しすぎてる, Norihiro Koizumi, 2013)

liar and his lover posterDespite the potential raciness of the title, The Liar and his Lover (カノジョは嘘を愛しすぎてる, Kanojo wa Uso wo Aishisugiteru) is another innocent tale of youthful romance adapted from a shojo manga by Kotomi Aoki. As is customary in the genre, the heroine is cute yet earnest, emotionally honest and fiercely clear cut whereas the hero is a broken hearted artist much in the need of the love of a good woman. Innocent and chaste as it all is, Liar also imports the worst aspects of shojo in its unseemly age gap romance between a 25 year old musician and the 16 year old high school girl he picks up on a whim and then apparently falls for precisely because of her uncomplicated goodness.

Aki (Takeru Satoh) introduces himself through a film noir-style voice over in which he details his ongoing malaise. Now a ghost member of the band Crude Play, Aki feels conflicted over his artistic legacy as his carefully crafted tunes are repurposed as disposable idol pop and performed by the friends who were once his high school bandmates. His idol girlfriend, Mari (Saki Aibu), has also been seeing the band’s manager in an effort to get ahead leaving Aki feeling betrayed and devoid of purpose.

Soon after, Aki runs into grocer’s daughter Riko (Sakurako Ohara) who is captivated by the song he’s been humming whilst staring aimlessly out to sea. Aki, feeling mischievous, picks Riko up on a whim. He goes to great pains to remind us that he had no real feelings for her and was only in it for the kicks but a later meeting sets the pair off on a complicated romance.

Aki becomes the “liar” of the title when he gives Riko a false name – Shinya, the name of the bassist who has replaced him in his own band. Despite the supposed purity of music as a means of communication, it is, in many ways, another lie. When Aki and his bandmates were offered a contract straight after high school they were overjoyed but it was short lived. Listening to their demo tape, Aki spots the problem right away – it’s not them playing, they’ve been replaced by polished studio session musicians. Saddened, Aki quits the band and is replaced by a ringer but continues to write songs both for Crude Play and other artists while the band’s manager gets the credit.

Music conveys and complicates the romance as it brings the two together but also threatens to keep them apart. Riko, a Crude Play fan, does not know Aki’s true identity and is disappointed when he says he hates girls who sing because she herself is in a high school band. Sure enough, the band get scouted by odious producer Takagi (Takashi Sorimachi) and handed to the villainous Shinya (Masataka Kubota) who threatens to do the same thing to them as they did to Crude Play. Riko, like Aki, is a musical purist but also wants to make her rock star dreams come true.

Like many a shojo heroine, Riko is convinced only she sees the “real” Aki, pushing past his angry, distant persona to a deeper layer of sensitive vulnerability. This being shojo she is more or less right, as Aki tells us in his voice over detailing just how irritating it seems to be for him that he’s falling for this unusually perceptive young woman. Despite realising that almost everything Aki has told her has been a lie (intentional or otherwise), Riko ignores his duplicity precisely because she thinks she already knows the “real” Aki through the “truth” of his music.

Takagi, the band’s unscrupulous manager, prattles on about music not mattering if it doesn’t sell, avowing that it’s all a matter or marketing anyway. Aki’s central concern is the misuse of his artistic legacy, that his art form has been stripped of its meaning and repackaged for mass market consumption. The band is “fake”, a manufactured image based on the ruins of the truth. Aki believes himself to be the same – an empty vessel, devoid of meaning or purpose. His love of music is only reawakened by Riko’s innocent enthusiasm and her surprising promise of “protection”.

The conflict is one of essential truth betrayed by music in all senses of the word as it is used and misused by the various forces in play. Unlike most shojo adaptations, Aki leads the way with Riko a vaguer figure ready to absorb the projected personalities of the target audience but the central dynamic is still one of goodhearted girl and broody boy. The unseemly age gap issue is entirely ignored, as the troubling undercurrent of Riko’s most attractive quality being her all encompassing pureness, undermining the otherwise charming, wistful comedy of the innocent musical romance.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

La La La at Rock Bottom (AKA Misono Universe, 味園ユニバース, Nobuhiro Yamashita, 2015)

プリントNobuhiro Yamashita has made something of a career out of championing the underdog and La La La at Rock Bottom (味園ユニバース, Misono Universe) provides yet another foray into the lives of the disposed and degraded. With a lighter touch than some of his previous work, the once again musically inflected film is another testament to the power of redemption and that you can still turn your life around if you only have the courage to take the chance.

The film begins with a young man being released from prison. The guard apologises about the smell of mothballs emanating from the man’s jacket, usually the family bring clean clothes. No family has come for this inmate though – just a couple of cool seeming characters who profess their gratitude for “what you’ve done for us” but the reunion is anything but warm. A little while later the man is unceremoniously bundled into a car and taken off to a quiet place where he is beaten half to death by thugs using baseball bats. After waking up, he stumbles around and eventually chances on a summer festival with a band playing on the mainstage. Zombified, the man grabs the mic and starts singing before promptly collapsing again.

The band’s manager, a young girl, takes the man home whereupon she discovers he’s lost his memory. Giving him the ironic nickname of “Pooch” (Kasumi also has a habit of picking up stray dogs), the band and local villagers quickly “adopt” the confused stranger and let him work at their karaoke rooms and studio whilst coaching him to become their new lead singer. However, as Pooch’s memories start to return it seems that his former life may not have been as tranquil as his laid-back amnesiac persona might suggest.

Like much of Yamashita’s previous work, music plays a central role with the one thing that Pooch remembers from his former life being the lyrics to a particular song and his innate singing talent. The leading role of Pooch himself is played by real life singing star Subaru Shibutani of Kansai based idol band Kanjani Eight who proves himself more than capable of belting out these hard rock/enka tracks as well as being able to imbue Pooch’s amnesiac blankness with his own specific character. He is ably supported by the popular young actress Fumi Nikaido who turns in yet another impressively nuanced performance as the older than her years Kasumi.

The beginning of the film gives us quite an idea of the man Pooch may have been and the kind of life he’s led. As the revelations pile on and Pooch’s memories inevitably return threatening the new life and personality he’s begun to build with the band and the possibility of fulfilling a long abandoned dream of being a singer, his dark side begins to break through and we’re shown a man lost in rage and violence left with nowhere to turn. At the end of the day, “Pooch” has been given a valuable opportunity to start all over again but it requires him to make the choice to do so. Go back to being “Shigeo”, a self hating thug who’s alienated absolutely everyone in his life or choose to become Pooch and earn a second chance to be the man he always wanted to be.

Like Yamshita’s previous film, Tamako in Moratorium, with which it also shares a lot in terms of style, La La La offers no great revelations or technical bells and whistles but revels in the simple pleasure of a tale told well. Like much of his other work, the central message is that it’s never too late to begin again (even if there are bridges which have been burned beyond repair) only that it requires you to make the sometimes scary choice to take a chance on something new. That choice rests with one person but is greatly aided by the support of others and the unusual bond between the two central characters (which stops short of romance) plus the uncompromising faith which Kasumi places in Pooch are some of the greatest joys of the film.

Perhaps not a career best from this still vastly underrated director, La La La at Rock Bottom is nevertheless another beautifully constructed addition to his filmography. Offering an extreme depth of performance from each of its ensemble cast, the film is rich with detail whilst also reflecting Yamashita’s trademark cinematic naturalism. Once again a musical feast for the ears, La La La at Rock Bottom is destined to become one of the director’s best loved films even in a career which has already offered so many as yet undiscovered gems.


 

Cute Girl (AKA Loveable You 就是溜溜的她 Hou Hsiao-Hsien 1980)

f_10046820_1If you’re familiar with the name Hou Hsiao-Hsien, it’s probably for his role in the Taiwanese new wave and as one of the major directors of so called “slow cinema”. It might come as a surprise then that his first three movies were pop star vehicles, heavy on catchy tunes and universal humour but light on deep themes and social commentary. However, even if everything about his first film Cute Girl is intended to be just another run of the mill populist rom-com, many of the elements from Hou’s later films are already present from long lenses and longer takes to interesting ideas about composition and a noticeable town/country divide.

The story is predictable enough, poor boy Da-gang falls for wealthy Wen Wen who quite literally doesn’t give him a second glance. That is until she runs off to stay with an aunt in the country for a last holiday before her father has her married off to the son of an important businessman. Da-gang coincidentally ends up in the same village as part of a survey team for a new road (that’s going to go right through the middle of someone’s house). Being Da-gang he also gets bitten by a caterpillar and ends up being left behind to recover whereupon he begins a tentative romance with Wen Wen at last! However, disaster strikes when her father calls her home to meet her prospective husband – will Wen Wen and Da-gang ever find the happiness they deserve? The answer’s sort of obvious but it’s still fun finding out!

The film features pop stars Fong Fei-Fei and Kenny Bee (from Hong Kong) and is unsurprisingly heavy on pop music including the title track which recurs several times throughout the film. Though Cute Girl is undeniably formulaic and intended as nothing other than disposable entertainment hoping to capitalise on its stars profile and sell a few more records, the film has undeniable quirky charm. Full of strange, not quite slapstick humour and silliness you can’t help but find yourself hugely invested in the screwball style love story of Wen Wen and Da-gang.

No, it’s not a film for the ages. It doesn’t tackle the deep themes Hou would return to time and again in his later career but it does have a degree of heart and commitment that make it a very enjoyable example of the late ’70s/’80s Taiwanese musical romantic comedies.

For the extra curious, here is the undeniably catchy tune itself!

20,000 Days on Earth

20000DAYS_QUAD4

Nick Cave – post-punk, counter culture legend, novelist, screenwriter and occasional actor has certainly led a very full life and on the day we meet him is living his 20,000th day on the planet. It is, of course, a fairly arbitrary number and a fictional conceit taken from one of Cave’s old notebooks in which he realised he was exactly 20,000 days old when he began working on the album that would eventually be released last year – Push the Sky Away. 20,000 Days on Earth is not your usual rockumentary – part fictionalised, fairly light on personal histories and musical performances, the film seems to want to push deeper into the nature of art, and the artist, more than the man known as Cave.

The film begins with an explosive series of images ranging from the important pop-culture moments of the last fifty years to what could be the personal images of someone’s life alongside a clock counting up to the all important 20,000th day. Cave, awake at 6.59, gets up from his all white bed leaving a still sleeping dark haired woman with her face obscured by pillows (presumably his wife, Susie). He informs us that he ceased to be a human being at the end of the twentieth century – he eats, writes, watches TV, plays with his children and ‘terrorises’ his wife. This fictional 24 hours in the creation of an album sees Cave probing and re-evaluating his life as an artist, his creative process and ultimately his purpose in life. What it does not do, particularly, is attempt to tell the story of Cave’s life or reveal any great personal truths but this extraordinary and ramshackle testament to the nature of art is as beguiling as it is inspiring.

Cave narrates his story with the air of a pulpy noir detective sitting down at a typewriter, probably fatally wounded, to tell us how it all went wrong after ‘that dame’ walked into his office. Equal parts Walter Neff leaving a last confession on a tape recorder and a punkish William Burroughs offering poetic and philosophical musings on the nature of memory and the art of transformation, Cave imparts to us the secrets of his craft. It’s not all solo musings though as Cave is visited by three ‘ghosts’ of his past each accompanying him on a picturesque drive along Brighton’s seafront. With actor Ray Winstone, who starred in the Cave scripted The Proposition, Cave seems deferent but talks about his love of performing and rejection of conscious ‘re-invention’. A second meeting with ex-bandmember Blix Bargeld feels rawer as they discuss the reasons for his departure from the band but the third, with fellow Ozzie Kylie Minogue feels altogether warmer and more cheerful. Each disappear as mysteriously as they arrived and you can’t help but wonder if they were ever really there at all or just a re-conjured memory or an imagined conversation only existing inside Cave’s mind. That’s not to mention the frequent reminiscences with more recent collaborator Warren Ellis about shared memories and an artistic working relationship or the fake interview with a psychoanalyst who probes Cave on his earliest sexual experiences and relationship with his father.

Cave describes himself at one point as ‘a front row kind of guy’ and worries that his performances don’t stretch so far beyond that. He likes to pick an audience member and ‘terrify’ them, there’s something about the mix of awe and terror that fascinates him and indeed the scenes from an intimate concert at Camden’s Koko show him bringing one female audience member to a state of near fearful ecstasy – such is his stage presence. The film features scenes from the creation of an album but isn’t the usual chronicle of its completion nor an exploration of the album itself. The whole thing climaxes with a triumphant performance sequence taken from a high octane concert taking place at Sydney Opera House which bears testimony to his skill as a stage performer and the ultimate justification of everything that’s gone before. In a slice of cinema magic, Cave appears to step out of Sydney Opera house directly onto the pebble beach at Brighton where he offers another description likening the process of songwriting as being like a sighting of a sea monster – sometimes you only see the humps but it’s your job to lure Nessie to the surface.

20,000 Days on Earth sometimes feels like one of those late night pub corner conversations with a mysterious old man who’s decided he wants to tell you his story. You aren’t sure if any of this is true, and some of it certainly sounds improbable in the least, but something about his delivery or the look in his eyes makes you want to believe him. He’s telling you the story he wants you to hear which bears its own truth, even if it wasn’t the one you were expecting. Lyrical and strangely profound 20,000 Days on Earth is an inspiring journey inside the mind of an artistic genius.