"Here we are now, entertain us…"
Japanese kids have it rough. The pressure to perform in junior-high school to secure a place in one of Japan’s “good” high schools is extreme, and a strict social hierarchy dominated by bullies and consumer pop culture provides the universe for Yuichi (Hayato Ichihara), Hoshino (Shugo Oshinari), Tsuda (Yu Aoi), and Kuna (Ayumi Ito). Their anonymous escape from this blackboard jungle is the shoe-gazing music of Bjork-like singer Lily Chou Chou (pronounced Shoo Shoo in case you were wondering) and their pseudonymous postings on an Internet forum for fans of the singer.
The film follows a non-linear format blurring the lines between the chronology of the story and the chronology of the posts on the bulletin board. In fact, the bulletin board acts sort of like a weird Greek Chorus for the character and frames each time change (back of forward) and each subsequent vignette and change of viewpoint.
Their respective love for the singer is the glue binding them to the two worlds of musical emersion and real-life struggle.
"Can you see the real me? Can ya? Can ya?"
- The Who: Quadrophenia
The main character is Yuichi, the aloof non-speaking moderator of the bulletin board, and it’s through his eyes, mostly, that we experience the events of the film. These include Hoshino’s death and rebirth in Okinawa, his subsequent ascension to the top of the bully heap, his coercion of Tsuda into teenage prostitution and the later rape of Kuna (already ostracized by her peers for her skill on the piano). This all plays out very slowly over three agonizing hours where we are given almost no insight into the actual lives of these kids, rather we are thrust with them into a series of increasingly disturbing (and ultimately predictable) set pieces culminating with suicide, murder, and redemption.
Iwai borrows (plagiarizes) liberally from dozens of sources that fans of teen angst movies and angry young man films will see immediately. Iwai also shoots, I believe, on video which should have saved him enough money to buy a tripod, but he neglects to use it, rendering almost all 3 hours of this film a hand-held and herky-jerky affair with a nod to Dogme, Cinema Verité, and umpteen episodes of NYPD Blue. He even manages to work in an excruciating forty minutes of view-finder-eye POV shots as Yuichi, Hoshino, and their friends cavort around Okinawa.
I am not a film snob irrespective of what you just read, but for the love of all that’s good and right about movies, please, frame the goddamn scene… How can I achieve cinematic immersion if the camera is swinging all over the place?
The cinematography, when allowed to be enjoyable, by Noboro Shinoda is excellent. He manages to capture the bleakness that clouds the overwhelming consumerism of the Japanese hinterlands wonderfully whether lingering on the characters standing hip-deep in waving green rice fields, or the sterile florescent expanse of a record store. Of course, these scenes appear infrequently, but when they do you will notice. Why? Because the camera is still.
"All in all it’s just another brick in the wall."
Pink Floyd: The Wall
By the time the cast gets back home and into their last year of Junior High the real storytelling part of the film begins (mind you, this is over an hour into the movie) where the clear lines between the characters appear and their relationships crystallize into something recognizable. But, by then, you won’t care because it becomes apparent that the preceding hour and a half was a long and confusing prelude to a film that could sit very comfortably on a Lifetime Network Teen Angst Tuesday marathon.
I might have not hated this film had the script contained even a single surprise, but everything, and I mean everything is telegraphed so clearly that bothering to stick around to the end of the film is less because of cinematic enjoyment and more about a Herculean test of endurance.
In fact, for all the talk about the disturbing elements of All About Lily Chou Chou there is very little, if anything, that would require a cut for broadcast on network television. I’ve seen more disturbing material in late 1970’s ABC After School Specials.
"Youth culture killed my dog and I don’t think it’s fair..."
They Might Be Giants: Lincoln
For all the continuous bouncing through long dissertations about the Ether with regard to Chou Chou’s music, there is very little music in the film for the audience to hear. In fact, just about all we get with regard to WHY they like her music is spelled out in the sound of keystrokes on a computer.
Iwai uses this format to relate Chou Chou’s music to the audience and it has the effect of allowing the viewer to effectively insert their own interpretation of what the kids have in their CD players. Overall that’s fine, I guess, so some of us would think of The Cure, or Tori Amos (before she went all boring), or Marilyn Manson, etc… and reflect on our own personal soundtrack for our own early teen sorrows.
"Despite all my rage I am still just a rat in a cage..."
Smashing Pumpkins: Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness
I think Iwai makes a miscalculation with his visualization of Internet communication. By providing only a username and some short text for each entry, typed on a stark black background, with an occasional response as if we are watching part of a chat session stops the film cold and ultimately devolves into phony pseudo mystic bullshit about Chou Chou’s albums and music and how it applies to the characters who differ so vastly in the real world of the film.
I swear; if I hear “Ether” again, someone is going to get slapped. I suppose he’s trying to show us the depth of the characters’ attachment to Chou Chou’s music, but to me it was like watching a debate between two 12 year olds over who was cooler, Superman or Spiderman. They have no insight, and I don’t know, maybe that was something Iwai wanted us to see, but for me these extended sequences became extremely tedious.
The acting is almost universally flat, with special mention going to Hayato Ichibara for “most scenes spent silenty gazing at the ground”. The only character that emerges at all is Yu Aoi’s Tsuda and her quiet musings on how to escape the life of prostitution that Hoshino has thrust her. She has a natural comfort in front of the camera that added a critical second dimension to her tragically predictable character.
With a spate of characters it is nearly impossible to like or identify with, all pulled lock stock and barrel from better films, All About Lily Chou Chou is good only in that it provides a standard of crapitude against which to measure other films.
“Oh sure, ‘Baby Geniuses’ was terrible, but have you seen ‘All About Lily Chou Chou’?”
The DVD released by HVC offers All About Lily Chou Chou in16x9 anamorphic widescreen in original Japanese with English subs. The DVD contains a making of featurette, a text bio and filmography of Shunji Iwai (so you can conceivably avoid his other work), and an essay about how the script came to be.
A message to fans of this film -
There are a million glowing reviews of this film on the net, so before you write to me and complain that I obviously didn’t understand the subtleties of Iwai’s script or the existential questions posted about the abyss of teenage life in a very rigid and success oriented society let me ask you this:
Did you like this movie?
Now don’t get me wrong, there are some clever elements in here. I particularly liked how Yuichi figured out who Blue-eye was in the concert line. But I ask, did he kill him because Blue-eye was an asshole, or because he poisoned the “Ether”? No matter which answer you choose, keep in mind that if you didn’t see Blue-eye’s death coming from the Okinawa sequences, then you weren’t paying attention. Iwai lays so many smoking guns around in the first hour of this film I was surprised that the NRA didn’t have a pamphlet stuck in the clam shell case.
Do yourselves a favor and go rent the films that Shunji Iwai apes in All About Lily Chou Chou, these would be:
Bully (2001 – Dir: Larry Clark)
Quadrophenia (1979 – Dir: Franc Roddam)
A Clockwork Orange (1971 – Dir: Stanley Kubric)
The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962 – Tony Richardson)
Kids (1995 – Dir: Larry Clark)
Gummo (1997 – Harmony Korine)
Battle Royale (2000 – Dir Kinji Fujasaku)
Iwai doesn’t just borrow from these films, he lifts entire elements from them and plops them down into a mire of obvious art house symbolism, trite homage to gloomy art-rock.