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Bad Film – Review

by Olivia Saperstein

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Shion Sono has been a household name in Japan and on the festival circuit since 1990, when he co-wrote, directed, and started in his film feature 16mm film, Bicycle Sighs. In 2001, his film Suicide Circle (retitled Suicide Club), about Japan’s high suicide rate, won the Jury Prize at Fantasia.  

This year, Sono closed the festival with his latest accomplishment, Bad Film, which captures the tension between Chinese and Japanese peoples living in Japan in the 1990s with grit and grim humor. While Sono allegedly shot the film in 1995, with his art collective the Tokyo Gagaga on Hi-8 video, he recently finished editing the hours and hours of footage that went into the project. What materialized was an engaging 165 minute hallucination.

1995 was a year filled with tension in Japan, as it was only two years later that The People’s Republic of China reassumed Hong Kong. Much like Romeo and Juliet (1968), or West Side Story (1961), Bad Film tells the tale of two gangs who have “been fighting so long they don’t even know what they’re fighting for.” Behold the Kamikaze (native Japanese), and the Baihubang (Chinese). While the Baihubang inhabit the Koenji region, the mission of the Kamikaze is that of ethnic cleansing; they want to not only regain Keonji but to clear the Japanese population of all Chinese.

While Sono takes a violent “no frills” approach, he does it with no lack of irony or humor. The role of narrator assists with this, frankly declaring the state of affairs with all austerity. While speaking of two of the Kamikaze members who are fooling around, the narrator states, “they are in fact, closeted gays.” This throws us off guard as viewers, no only because it contrasts with their outward macho drip, but because the encounter just randomly happens. The kingpin’s obsession with a pig’s head, of whom he constantly kisses and strokes, is no different.

These type of absurdist antics keep an HD soaked millennial audience present. And where strong characters and raw fight scenes prevail, eyes follow. In fact every few minutes another bumbling brawl seems to go down, and what is truly impressive is the handheld camera work–it glides along city streets with finesse, the actors seemingly perfectly choreographed. Moments that break the 180 degree rule (where the other camera is shown) barely bother us, because of the true backbone and authenticity of the footage. The subject matter is already hard, so DIY filmmaking goes hand in hand.

It is the women who serve as forces of peace in this film, and two in particular. Kana, who’s brother is a devout Kamikaze, and Maggie, a homeless Chinese immigrant. When the two meet and fall in love, we have a case of star-crossed lovers on our hands. Forget victimization. While Maggie appears quiet and willowy, she is far from frail. Despite a teeth-grinding gang rape scene, she gains her perfect revenge and has found some form of her own autonomy among the slums of Japan. Watching the relationship between the two women blossom before a murderous street outbreak is like a lotus blooming in a muddy swamp.

Despite these meaningful moments Bad Film, which is effectually a good film, thrives less in its political statement and more in its absurdism. Sono has learned well that puzzling your audience makes them think. His true show of irony lies in the fact that a peaceful message can flower in an unforgiving film.

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Author: Olivia Saperstein

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