FEATURING: Takahiro Satô, Satomi Tezuka, Tadanobu Asano, Maya Banno, Tatsuya Gashûin, Tomokazu Miura, Ikki Todoroki, Anna Tsuchiya
PLOT: A Taste of Tea follows the Haruno family living in rural Japan. The young son has his first crush; the young daughter has a giant doppelganger only she can see; the mother is attempting a comeback in her career as an anime artist; the father is a hypnotist who sends his subjects on psychedelic trips; and a visiting uncle is still melancholy from a romance that ended years ago. A grandfather with a thick gray unibrow and a permanent cowlick watches over the clan while practicing strange poses and singing nonsense songs.
The title may come from a quote by the ancient Chinese poet Lu Tong, who said, “I care not a jot for immortal life, but only for the taste of tea.”
Hideaki Anno (of “Neon Genesis” series fame) appears in a cameo as the anime director.
This was Katsuhito Ishii‘s third feature film, but the first to attract much attention outside Japan. It played at Cannes and won awards at smaller festivals. Ishii had just come off directing the animated sequences for Quentin Tarantino‘s Kill Bill. His next project, 2004’s Funky Forest, was even weirder and more random than Tea.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Little Sachicko’s giant double, who silently and mysteriously watches her as she goes about her daily routine.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Forehead train; giant doppelganger; egg-head yakuza
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Katsuhito Ishii revamps the least weird genre of cinema, the familial drama, with gently surreal CGI and a narrative that wanders off into mildly scatological yakuza ghost stories, psychedelic hypnotism, and in-progress anime rushes, all watched over by a giant mute schoolgirl.
PLOT: A man has killed his wife, but she won’t stay dead. In an initially unrelated story, a foul-mouthed, short-tempered English hitman with a translator in tow is expanding his operations into Japan. Their plotlines intersect with those of a middle-class father who has a disaster with a celebrity hypnotist, trio of teenage burglars, and an ad exec whose absurd commercial ideas amuse only herself.
This is Gen Sekiguchi’s only feature film. He has also produced two short films and an entry in the 2011 anthology film Quirky Guys and Girls. He comes from an advertising and music video background, where he collaborates with screenwriter Taku Tada. The pair won the advertising award at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival.
Survive Style 5+ received little distribution (it garnered zero reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, and has never been released on DVD in North America), but word of mouth on the Internet has made it into an underseen cult hit.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: One character flying away on another, to the tune of “I Will Survive.” (Sure, fans already familiar with the movie may complain that this pick is a spoiler—but the new viewer will have trouble figuring out how things get to this point, right up until the very end.)
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Assassin with translator; pop as a microwave turkey; flying away
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Survive Style 5+ interweaves five stories–variously comic, absurd, supernatural, campy, and/or bizarre–including a series of surreal commercials imagined by one of the many oddball characters. It’s polished and stylish, yet consistently wild and unpredictable; an underground cult film that’s survived years of subpar distribution through enthusiastic word of mouth, and is just waiting to take off into the stratosphere.
PLOT: Suicidal expatriate librarian Kenji witnesses a fatal automobile accident while contemplating jumping off a Bangkok bridge, and falls for Noi, the victim’s sister.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Last Life in the Universe is a quality romantic drama with a strong “indie” flavor to it, but the few liberties it takes with reality aren’t quite enough to tip it into the “weirdest of all time” category.
COMMENTS: Suicide attempts, pot-smoking hallucinations, abusive boyfriends, yakuiza revenge killings: Pen-Ek Ratanaurang slips a surprising amount of plot into a languid movie that’s essentially about two mismatched people lying around talking and occasionally cleaning the house. It also has enough fantasy sequences (which are sometimes difficult to distinguish from reality) that you may become confused once or twice as to whether events really occurred (I confess that I thought one of the major plot twists was a dream up until the end of the movie). Asano and Boonyasak make for an appealingly melancholy couple, each of them mired in their own particular tragedy. The Japanese librarian is an obsessive neatnik, while the Thai local is a pothead slob, but the movie makes the barrier to these two consummating their attraction feel like it runs deeper than superficial traits; their private sadnesses seem unbridgeable.
As a whole, Last Life‘s story is denser than the minimalist individual scenes might suggest; it’s a movie with good replay value. Try to catch things that you missed on a first pass. Look for lizards everywhere, and a nod to That Obscure Object of Desire. You’ll also learn about Bangkok bars where the hostesses dress like schoolgirls wearing bunny ears, and how to get bloodstains out of your Escher print. And you can make up your own mind about the ambiguous ending. If nothing else, Ratanaruang goes down easier than fellow sleepyThai Apichatpong Weerasethakul‘s work: it’s not as weird, but a lot more happens.
Last Life was lensed by cinematographer nonpareil Christopher Doyle; according to an interview with Ratanaruang included on the DVD, the chance to work with Doyle was one of the main inspirations for the movie, and the DP seems to have had an unusually large role in the finished project. Last Life is also notable for a rare acting cameo by director Takashi Miike, who does well as a yakuza boss. Miike, of course, directed Last Life star Asano in Ichi the Killer. If you’re looking for a truly international film production, you can’t get much more cosmopolitan than this: a Thai setting and director, a Japanese star, an Australian cinematographer known for his work in Hong Kong, and the whole thing was partially funded with French and American money. They even speak three languages in the movie: Thai, Japanese, and English (although Asano and Boonyasak’s English accents sometimes made me anxious to return to the subtitles).
PLOT: Four experimental stories of sex and madness adapted from the works of Edogawa Rampo: a man regrets a rape, a killer strikes through mirrors, a wife cares for a husband who is a human torso, and a limo driver is obsessed with a stage actress.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: We’ll dismiss it for uneveness, although even the best segments probably would not merit inclusion in a list of the greatest weird movies of all time.
COMMENTS: Rampo Noir is more of a series of visual and stylistic calling cards than it is a tribute to the literary talents of Edogawa Rampo (Tarō Hirai, “the Japanese Edgar Allen Poe,” who selected his pseudonym to pay tribute to the American horror/mystery writer). The narratives here are either nonexistent (“Mars’s Canal,” the impressionistic Rampo-inspired first course), slight (“Caterpillar” and “Crawling Bugs”), or founded on dated pseudoscience (“Mirrored Hell”). Of course, one would not sense what made Poe great by watching Roger Corman‘s Tales of Terror; the four directors here aim at capturing Rampo’s perverse atmosphere (with greater explicitness) rather than showing accuracy to his texts. The results, as might be expected, are all over the map (sometimes within the same segment).
The first film (“Mars’s Canal”) begins with a warning advising your that your disc is not defective. Entirely silent, with deliberately glitchy video, it’s an indulgence by heretofore (and hence) unknown director Suguru Takeuchi. It’s built around one magnificent shot (filmed in Iceland), but even at six minutes long it tries the patience of the average viewer.
In contrast, Akio Jissôji’s “Mirror Hell” is a (relatively) conventional murder mystery, probably the most accessible segment of the omnibus. There is a (somewhat) rational explanation to the mystery of beautiful tea-ceremony teachers who turn up dead, although it does depend on strained early-twentieth century science fiction-style explanations (undiscovered elements with properties that mimic magic, that sort of thing). It also features a Rampo-esque theme that dreams are reality, and that what we think of as life is but a reflection in a mirror, “neither real nor unreal.” It as, as might be expected, filled with multiple mirrors in almost every shot (there’s an interesting composition of mirrors on a beach, each reflecting a different landscape, that evokes a vintage Continental Surrealist painting).
Hisayasu Satô savors the sickness inherent in “Caterpillar.” The story involves the unhealthy relationship between a resentful wife and her war hero husband, now a mute quadruple-amputee, whom she must care for. Satô takes Rampo’s original anti-war parable (which was adapted more accurately in Kôji Wakamatsu‘s feature length film) and focuses almost entirely on the salacious sadomasochistic aspects of the story. Like all of the entries, “Caterpillar” is visually superior, but this one lacks a meaningful reason to exist: Satô’s treatment bludgeons the original’s subtleties, and due to a lack of substance in the main tale he introduces an unnecessary character (a nosy collector who considers the caterpillar a work of art) and shoehorns in a ridiculous appearance by Rampo detective Kogorô Akechi (Asano, reprising his role from “Mirror Hell”). “Caterpillar” may impress some with its perversity, but it doesn’t so as much with the premise it was handed as it should have.
Although this rarely happens in anthologies, in Rampo Noir the best is saved for last. In an inversion of the dynamic we saw with “Caterpillar,” Atsushi Kaneko’s “Crawling Bugs” takes a well-worn idea (the shy, unhinged man obsessed with an unobtainable iconic beauty) and uses style and psychological details to make it feel fresh. There are many odd touches here, from the actress’ bizarre pyramidal hairstyle to alternating inserts of a nebula and an amoeba. While our timid limo-driver suffers from an itchy psychosomatic condition that causes him to feel like he has bugs crawling over his skin, his obsession plays a strange sexual game involving a leech-like bug that crawls over her neck. The glowing forest glade he constructs as an altar to his lady inside of his shabby apartment is a rainbow fantasy refuge that makes us feel as disconnected from reality as he is. “Bugs” is the only segment here that feels like it could stand on its own, and singlehandedly raises the quality of the anthology from “take it or leave it” to “worth watching.”
Tadanobu Asano appears in every episode and is clearly the main domestic draw. Of the directors, only Hisayasu Satô is somewhat known in the West, for exploitative sadomasochistic pink movies like Unfaithful Wife: Shameful Torture (AKA The Bedroom) and Splatter: Naked Blood. Akio Jissôji has made numerous movies not widely seen outside of Japan, but Suguru Takeuchi and Atsushi Kaneko have done nothing of note before or since this.
PLOT: Set in a distant future and moving between multiple planets, this is a fairly simple tale of a major road race taking place on a militaristic planet that doesn’t want it there. Racers “Sweet” JP, the big-haired underdog, and Sonoshee, a single-minded gearhead, are the main focus of the story.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Armed with an eclectic cast of alien characters and a host of over-the-top shenanigans, Redline might come off as “weird” to someone unfamiliar with anime, but I’d say the stranger humor and visuals fit in pretty squarely with other properties of the genre. It’s an imaginative and enormously entertaining film, just not especially Weird.
COMMENTS: The future laid out in Redline is certainly an intriguing one, if completely ludicrous. Hot shot reckless racer JP makes it to the titular big interstellar race, held on a militaristic planet that hasn’t consented to be the host. He cozies up to Sonoshee, a cute green-haired lady who is one of the most serious and intimidating drivers there, and together the two attempt to navigate a strange obstacle course against alien competitors (some with inexplicable magic powers) and large-scale weaponry. Squeezing in ESPN-like profiles of various racers—from an experienced cyborg who’s fused himself with his machine to a pair of scantily clad pop stars hailing from a magical princess planet—there’s some room for satire, too.
This movie is essentially all spectacle and adrenaline, with very little comprehensible or meaningful plot holding it together, but it’s not like the filmmakers are operating under any pretense of depth. They’ve created a gorgeously animated, pumped-up sci-fi thriller, and that’s all that’s needed! The characters are slick, and the vehicle designs slicker, with plenty of exaggerated personalities and colorful attachments for an engaging race line-up. Sure, there’s a silly romantic/secret-past subplot thrown in there, but it’s never taken very seriously. Various secondary stories are introduced, such as the military planet’s worker resistance and JP’s involvement in race-fixing, but the race itself remains the focus and it’s easy to forget that anything else is going on (the script certainly seems to by the end). The set-up can be confusing at times due to an influx of minor characters and limited explanation of the obviously complex political and environmental structures.
The strengths of Redline lie almost completely in its visuals and fast pacing. The dark shading and bright color schemes, the over-the-top hair styles and imaginative alien creatures, the quick-cut-editing and crazy landscapes: it’s all fantastically sweet eye-candy, set to an ecstatic musical score. It’s violent but fun, and there’s probably political commentary thrown in there somewhere. The script is cheesy at points, but vaguely self-aware. It’s just a very cool movie all around, rarely letting up for a moment in its quest to assault the senses with psychedelic imagery and revving engines.