Strange though it may seem, there’s one ridiculously clichéd sentence that almost perfectly epitomizes the apparent moral of Strawberry Shortcakes: “In an ideal world, everyone would be happy, but the world isn’t perfect”. Happiness – or rather lack of it – is actually the key to understanding the self-conscious irony of the picture and how the experiences of its four women protagonists correspond to the overall decline in emotionality. Yazaki Hitoshi weaves an exquisite and heartfelt tale that has plenty of touching and funny moments, but they’re often in the shadow of the real-life drama that permeates the somewhat tragic lives of the aforementioned characters. Furthermore, Strawberry Shortcakes gives a very detailed account of what it means to search for love. This difficult quest serves its purpose as a thorough determinant of the course of events. Beyond that, it immediately allows to distinguish between the women, their problems, dreams, and hopes. It’s a neatly designed palette of characteristics, in which every person might find something familiar, a trait that more or less resembles his or her own personality. The director establishes a contemplative, yet heart wrenchingly emotional atmosphere of the story not only by addressing the notion of happiness through individual sensations, but also by focusing on two distinct relationships between two pairs of Tokyo women, who ultimately have more in common than one might think.
Satoko (Ikewaki Chizuru, most known for her magnificent role in Josee, the Tiger and the Fish) is an insecure, religious woman, who works as a receptionist at a local escort agency. Although the girl prays obstinately every day, she uses the sphere of sacrum for her own selfish and often unprincipled needs, which ultimately ridicules the whole idea of affinity between God and men. Case of sexual harassment leads her onto a new path towards discovery as she starts working in a low-class ramen joint. For that same agency works Akiyo (Nakamura Yuko), an extremely attractive, classy, yet deeply lost prostitute who’s secretly in love with her college classmate. She distances herself from other people because she doesn’t want to be hurt and indulges in meaningless yet profitable carnal escapades, all the time trying to save money for a new place. Satoko tries to empathize with Akiyo, but her good intentions are ultimately eclipsed by the weight of her personal headaches.
Toko (Nananan Kiriko, the creator of the original “Sweet Cream and Red Strawberries” manga, credited by her acting name Iwase Toko) and Chihiro (Nakagoshi Noriko) have been living as roommates for quite some time now, but their completely different goals and beliefs prevent them from having even one real, hearty conversation. Being a struggling artist, Toko values her artistic creativity more than anything else in the world. Anxieties increased by work-related problems worsen her ongoing struggle with bulimia. Chihiro, on the other hand, is an office lady and a reckless romantic who desperately wants to have a partner, even if it means being treated inhumanely. It’s only ironic that her desperate search for intimacy becomes even more pitiful on the day of her birthday, when an unknown man finishes on her face saying “Happy Birthday” in a comically distorted English. Though the girls have a hard time understanding each other’s feelings and dreams they ultimately realize that there’s an invisible, very profound bond between them, which transcends the limitations of daily connections.
Camera never flinches when it penetrates even the most personal realm of the women’s lives. There’s almost no movement on its part whatsoever, and everything that’s important plot-wise is always in the frame, making some of the embarrassing events look even more awkward for the viewer. Though not all of the actresses playing leading roles can be called experienced, there’s much subtlety and thoughtfulness given to all the nuances, on which the performances are built. This method of attentive acting creates an enormously pleasant and tender aura around the story and works very fine for the ever changing on-screen development of the characters to take impactful shape. Female-friendly Strawberry Shortcakes has its delicious pleasantries and some highly necessary signs of an upcoming hope, but the horrifyingly realistic and sometimes incongruous depiction of a life scarred by struggle makes one think about the importance of setting life goals straight, in order to maintain even the minimal amount of satisfaction. When it comes to emotional stability, however, Strawberry Shortcakes convincingly insinuates that a determined, yet strictly down-to-earth approach might be the perfect way to go.
Japan has always served as a perfect example of how mutual, cross-cultural fascination might lead to a sort of barrier-breaking situation where people from completely dissimilar societies are able to find a common language in order to live together, without even mentioning many miscellaneous cultural differences that would’ve otherwise make the whole affair pretty complicated. Although it’s impossible for a foreigner to become a full-bodied member of the Japanese society, those who persevere the whole long-drawn process of assimilation often achieve their goal and decide to stay for longer. Fitting in to a new culture is definitely tricky and challenging, but not less demanding than maintaining a healthy relationship with a person, whose sense of cultural identity is contrary to ours. The topic of cross-cultural relationships and marriages is a very popular one lately, hence it sparked a lot of more or less satisfactory debates around the web. While some people call such relations mind-expanding, others deem them futureless. The matter’s been covered by the Japanese media dozens of times, but ‘My Darling Is a Foreigner’, based on Oguri Saori’s manga by the same name, is actually the first film that builds its entire storyline on the ups and downs of a bond between a Japanese woman named Saori (Inoue Mao) and a foreigner – here an American man named Tony (Jonathan Sherr).
Unfortunately, what at first might seem adorable, laughable, and comely quickly turns into a ridiculous collection of stereotype-driven revelations. Given that the story’s told mostly from the viewpoint of the Japanese protagonist it’s relatively obvious right from the start that My Darling Is a Foreigner is meant to come across as a heartwarming, fairytale-like crowd pleaser for the Japanese part of the audience, rather than an unbiased picture with the capacity to give romance a new name. What works perfectly fine are the humorous interludes, in which presumably random couples share their answers to some quirky relationship-related questions. The film could’ve certainly used more of them. What’s worth noting is that the titular foreigner (or gaijin in Japanese), played with much charm by Sherr, never gets enough attention from the script and quickly looses the potential of becoming one of the most watchable and one of the least ridiculous foreign characters in modern Japanese cinema. He depicts a loving and caring man in an often uncomfortable and odd manner, but he’s never far from being adorable. Nevertheless, the story never allows him to develop into anything more than the reason behind Saori’s ego-driven, sudden surge of ambition. The only, rather funny impression that lasts is the one stimulated by Tony’s exaggerated attention to language specifics.
The film’s good-natured and cheering tone soon diverges into two disparate directions. There’s the fairly engaging tale of love and its power to overcome various discouraging obstacles. On the other hand we see Saori’s inability to cope with her father’s harsh pronouncement, even up to a moment when Tony’s presence seems unneeded. Saori is very likable and full of positive energy, but clearly embarrassed when surrounded by foreigners. She showers her boyfriend with love, but in a difficult situation decides to focus on her career instead. Ironically, many reappearing, obvious and rather frustrating references to various Hollywood rom-coms never let My Darling Is a Foreigner escape from a trap that it consciously creates, where sugary clichés mix with many unsurprising turns of events. Not to mention the strong and harsh father figure, whose attitude towards his little daughter’s new love object is often told in the form of a stereotypical cautionary tale for all the male foreigners trying to please their girlfriend’s apparently prejudiced parents. The old man unknowingly provokes a huge crisis in the couple’s problematic relationship. However, in a most predictable way love is soon saved from danger in a climax that’s familiar and laughable, but still somehow properly cute and warm.
My Darling Is a Foreigner is Ue Kazuaki’s directorial debut. Even though the story’s delightful foolishness is the main cause of its shortcomings and redundant repetitions of some conventional images, I can see how hard it must’ve been to work with a material that might seem doomed from the start. There are numerous ways in which the Japanese perceive foreigners and vice versa. The vast amount of differing views and opinions makes it remarkably hard to abstain from using caricatures as replacements for real-life cases. My Darling Is a Foreigner sometimes parodies its objects of interest to an extent that feels more mocking than instructive, but one simple, yet timeless fact remains to be true – love possesses that special ability to go beyond cultural influences.
One boy’s unexpected and rebellious outburst against a seemingly solid system accidentally starts a deeply revealing and often deliciously bizarre chain of events that leads to an even more vivid and complex exploration of the unjust and obscure hierarchies that rule most Japanese high schools. A horrifyingly well-built structure that worked perfectly fine for a long time suddenly collapses, only because one of its elements breaks out. The culprit behind the whole distressing, yet strangely absurd situation is the titular Kirishima, an enigmatic and intriguing persona, whose mysterious disappearance is only strengthened by the fact that his name is mentioned many times throughout the film, but his face remains unknown up until the very last minutes. Basing judgment on multiple testimonies it becomes strikingly clear that this boy was actually one of the most beloved students in the school and a person, whose popularity was like a driving force behind the otherwise boring and meaningless school life.
The most accurate translation of the title goes like this: ‘Kirishima said we should stop the clubs and live our lives. ‘ Being in such a club means that you’re actually more than a regular student. It means that you possess a special talent that only a few other pupils have. You share the excitement that goes with those wonderful abilities and the further you dive into that carefully designed network of privileges the more you become obsessed with it. There are some clubs that lead you onto a path of fame; there are those, which do the exact opposite. Whichever one you choose, consciously or not, practically foreshadows what part in the brutal and anarchistic hierarchy you’re going to take. The rules are simple: you’re either someone or no one. If I’d have to imagine a bloodless version of Battle Royale that’d probably be it. Told in an almost Rashomon-esque style, The Kirishima Thing not only explores how easy it is to destroy such fragile and controversial hierarchies, but also gives an exciting and provoking insight into the psyche of a bunch of high school students from completely different environments, whose previously undisturbed existence, abruptly corrupted by chaos, disintegrates within a series of peculiarly random incidents. Unprepared for such a cofounding and frightening situation, most of the characters begin to reveal their true selves in a matter of days. Yoshida Daihachi found a really compelling and subtle way of showing what mechanisms govern a supposedly ordinary school ground. Given its slow pace and rather uneventful, yet utterly engaging storyline based on a series of revelatory dialogues, the non-linear narrative makes great use of repeating the same scenes a number of times but from differing points of view. This technique not only confirms the increasing anxiety within the student body, but also leads to a masterfully crafted character development. It allows for the viewers to engage in the characters’ daily lives. Those conversations or events that have a bigger impact on the final effect are shown with much consideration and attention to details and the initially unwanted repetitions gradually become curiously infatuating and crucial to understanding what’s about to happen.
Although the story thoroughly applies to the whole system it’s not exactly true that the consequences of the aforementioned incident concern all students. The story concentrates only on a few of them, but their experiences indicate a much broader problem. Maeda is the guru of the brutally unpopular film club. Despite the fact that everyone around makes fun of him he obstinately marches on towards his goal, which is to direct a critically acclaimed low-budget picture. He sees a fine chance to finally get what he wants when the condition of the unhealthy situation gets even worse, meaning that most of the well-liked classmates run around with much fear and confusion painted on their faces. In that group we find Risa (played by the beautiful Yamamoto Mizuki), Kirishima’s girlfriend, who feels wronged sensing that the whole affair is aimed strictly at her. There’s also Hiroki (Higashide Masahiro), Kirishima’s best friend and an all-around playboy, whose inability to understand the boy’s decision puts him into a state of numbness and even his enormously jealous but also extremely expressive girlfriend (Matsuoka Mayu) isn’t able to help. The only person that somehow stands out from the crowd is Kasumi (Hashimoto Ai). Although she’s one of the cool kids, she’s subconsciously drawn to the nerdy Maeda. Their experiences vary, but what connects them is a need to ‘belong’, a word that inevitably changes its meaning, when the students suddenly realize there is actual life beyond the artificial club-driven one.
The only thing that left me a bit unsatisfied was that the film conscientiously creates a various number of more or less attractive sub-plots, but doesn’t focus on finishing most of them. Given the somewhat hurried and unexpected, yet pleasantly ridiculous climax it’s understandable that many of the fairly important side stories reluctantly sink into oblivion. However, after the film ended my though wasn’t ‘Who the hell is Kirishima?’ but ‘I wonder what happened with Kasumi and Maeda’. Still, It’s Yoshida’s best film to date, a slick and smooth exploration of an unpredictable system that westerners never really get to see. For Japanese people it might be a valuable and evaluative social commentary, which conspicuously makes Kirishima a silent initiator of a desirable change. That’s only an unrealistic theory perhaps, but what’s definitely true is that The Kirishima Thing never fails to keep one interested.
Figuratively speaking, there’s nothing really cheerful about this parade. It’s rather a sombre and somewhat uneventful march that goes on for two hours and reveals its true meaning in the last quarter or so. In the more literal sense, Yukisada Isao’s Parade, tone-wise peculiarly grievous, is a very ambitious film that basically wants to achieve two things, yet in the end succeeds in only one of them. Surprisingly, the subject that it tries to focus on throughout the whole time keeps bumping into various obstacles that undermine the actual potential of Yukisada’s power-hungry intentions.
I’ll start with the aspect that works perfectly fine and makes the film really watchable, namely, well-scripted and intuitive character development. The four protagonists (and the fifth that joins them later) are introduced to the viewers one by one, in a series of dramatic vignettes of sorts, but in a very consequent and fascinating manner. Beyond being greatly insightful the narration is actually identically precise. The viewer gets to experience all the emotionally important events of the characters’ lives and gradually stars to feel empathy for those conflicted individuals coping with various, often really intimate, problems. Yet soon enough the plot slowly exposes the theme that it so badly wants to ponder on. That’s where we get to the part of the film that doesn’t necessarily come across as fully developed. The picture tries to convey a particularly ironic, albeit somewhat familiar, message about humans – they aren’t always who they seem to be. Through the story of four youths sharing an apartment somewhere in Tokyo Parade tries to explain how misleading it might be to rely on appearances. As the film effectively shows, even the people that we know for a long time can always surprise us, sometimes in the most unpredictable way. It’s all genuinely interesting and inventive plot-wise, but to be perfectly honest I stopped caring about the actual value of that otherwise thought-provoking notion long before the film got to the point. It would’ve been definitely more memorable if not for the fact that it drags on a bit too long, ultimately leaving a rather mixed impression.
On the example of a seemingly ordinary apartment Parade shows how vulnerable people actually are in such closed communities. Whether striking or trivial, every character has his/her own secrets. These aren’t some cloak-and-dagger people but perfectly normal citizens, who in a much broader sense represent humanity itself. Due to a lot of pressure from the surroundings and constant feeling of anxiety they want to portray themselves as someone else completely. When the heroes are in their shared room they seem uptight, although they don’t want to appear as such, but only outside they become who they really are. Reminiscent of cult films like Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema or Miike Takashi’s Visitor Q the film insinuates that all of their well-kept secrets would probably never see the light of day if not for an overnight visit from a lone stranger, who turns their lives overflowing with routine totally upside down. A weird and compassionate character that he is, Satoru (Hayashi Kento) develops a unique bond with all the roommates. Susceptible to influences from the society, they’re all drawn to him; they feel that his presence will finally let them break the routine and will eventually make their existence seem more momentous. Parade works fine as a wonderful character (tragi) comedy-esque picture, but the fact that I awaited some great revelation and got irritated halfway through changed my opinion of this initially attractive feature.
In the midst of it all there’s also an element of mystery and suspense, which concerns a horrifying series of assaults that occur near the aforementioned apartment building, a factor that, along with the oddly green colored and sombre visuals, brings to mind Kurosawa Kiyoshi’s works. What’s rather intriguing is that even this seemingly dangerous turn of events doesn’t impact the daily plans of the heroes. Ironically, until that unexpected intrusion they never realize that they’re trapped in a never-ending circle of secrecies and fake impressions.
My long fascination with Miike Takashi definitely taught me a thing or two about this prolific and most unpredictable director. I immersed myself in his work and slowly began to understand that whichever of his films I pick, even at random, is going to bring me a lot of pleasure eventually. It’s not that I like all of his pictures, no, I actually find some of them unsatisfactory, but in order to fully appreciate the work that Miike does one needs to delve deep into his career as a filmmaker. It’s an artist-customer relationship that is never exhausting, albeit takes a lot of time, and the final reward is definitely of the highest sort – Miike’s films possess that unique ability to expand one’s imagination through stories that are often demanding and brutal, but also genuinely addictive.
I only recently discovered Fudoh: The Next Generation, Miike’s low-budget, bizarre, early masterpiece. It’s a picture that conspicuously reveals his roots as the huge believer of the ridiculous and the bloody as a means to enrich an already smashing narrative. Behind a wall formed of excessively gritty visuals merged with darkly comical, NSFW slapstick situations hides a message that seems important and timeless not only for Japanese people. Though a story about the Yakuza and their deadly fight for power, Fudoh ponders on the real meaning of honor and revenge. Miike understands that emotional values are important even for those seemingly passionless and brutal thugs and maintains a healthy balance between plain macabre and actual real-life values.
Fudoh concentrates on a teenage Yakuza enforcer named Riki Fudoh (Tanihara Shosuke), who wants to take vengeance for his older brother’s death. Things get a lot more complicated when a sombre retrospection clarifies that it was their father (Minegishi Toru) who killed the boy, just for take of maintaining good relations with rivaling clans. Blinded by anger, Fudoh begins to exterminate all the major henchmen of his father’s powerful organization with the help of a group of his hilariously eccentric high school friends. To understand what I mean by ‘eccentric’ you need to see the film, but a brief characteristic of the individuals will give a glimpse of the author’s (the picture is based on a manga of the same title created by Tanimura Hitoshi) creativity: a 2-metres tall primitive and savage biker, a gun-toting schoolgirl, her hermaphrodite classmate, skilled in the art of shooting darts from her private place and two small boys, who aren’t afraid to use a weapon now and then. Along for this violent and backbreaking revenge journey comes a mysterious woman, who quickly turns from the school’s English professor into Fudoh’s slave. Surprisingly, all those freakish and completely random individuals are adept at killing, often in very bizarre and inventive ways. Though they’re soon very close to executing the vicious plan, the whole situation gets out of control when Fudoh’s father calls in a well-trained professional assassin to stop the whole murderous farce. What ensues is a fight to the death that combines elements of drastic gore and horror-style comedy.
Fudoh: The New Generation teeters on the brink of good taste. There are many scenes that are downright abhorrent, but those, who’ve seen at least one Miike film will know what to expect. There are no barriers that would stop him from pursuing his goal and Fudoh pretty straightforwardly explains what was the director’s intention. He wanted to shock, to disgust, to create controversy, but not more than to design a story that’s involving and worthwhile. In 1996, Miike was still relatively unrecognizable in the western world, but Fudoh undeniably confirms that back in the days he promised to stay true to his very original style and until today that remains visible even in his more commercial works.
I must admit that my first Miki Satoshi experience was rather accidental and happened a good few years ago. In 2007 by chance I wound up at a screening of Adrift in Tokyo, which I thought was both fascinatingly unusual and attractively quirky, yet afterwards I completely forgot to research the director’s work and until this year I didn’t really get a chance to get acquainted with his other works. Seeing that his newest picture It’s Me, It’s Me gained a lot of critical attention after its premiere at Udine Far East Film Festival 2013 I finally decided to check out Miki’s earliest efforts. Having no idea where to start I just randomly picked up a picture with the most eccentric title. That’s basically how I ended up watching Turtles Swim Faster Than Expected (AKA Turtles Are Surprisingly Fast Swimmers).
The first thing that really strikes, even before the viewer gets to know the characters and their stories, is the chromatic, very bright, kitschy and – in its own special way – ugly color palette used almost up to a point where it’s positively stimulating and induces only happy thoughts. The décor that the movie is gently wrapped up in gives a chance to familiarize with the film’s pleasantly bizarre vibe and its tongue-in-cheek attitude almost immediately. The story focuses on an ordinary inhabitant of this colorful environment, an exhausted housewife named Suzume, whose husband went on a business trip and left her with nothing but a small turtle (which, contrary to the title, is a rather slow swimmer) and a bunch of dirty dishes. During one of her daily strolls around the unusually peaceful neighborhood she is attacked by a load of apples rolling down the town’s famous hundred stairs, a place that holds sentimental value to Suzume. Her fate already decided she accidentally discovers a hilariously small advertisement with a word ‘spy’ on it, takes it home, and with a gorgeous smile on her face begins a life-changing adventure.
Curious and excited, Suzume phones and three days later meets with the mysterious advertiser, a married couple that’s as weird as it is adorable. They reveal the secret behind their work and without a second of hesitation recruit bewildered Suzume as one of their on-location spies. The very vague (although that’s still an exaggeration) description of the job leaves the woman confounded, yet still pretty enthusiastic and ready for some action. She states: ‘Even though it’s not much different to the way I was living yesterday, why am I so tired?’ and that sentence perfectly corresponds to her tasks as a novice spy. She doesn’t really know what she’s supposed to do but the sudden feeling of meaningfulness that arises in her head progressively during trainings with the strange couple is all that Suzume needs at the moment. Her life, as she learns, must change completely and give way to a wave of mediocrity (huge emphasis on the word). This idea implanted in her mind leads her to a state, in which she believes that everything she does is important and the boring life that she so loved to hate is long gone. Note that she was never actually special, but because of the farcical brainwashing sessions she assumes that from now on she must carefully watch her every move in order to conceal the spy identity.
Later on, to her own great surprise, she realizes that some fellow citizens she knows are on the job too and few of their secret rendezvous are actually the best source of amusement in the film. What’s surprising is that Turtles Swim Faster Than Expected’s plot is almost completely uneventful – sometimes based only on redundant sequences – and the pace is radically slow, but the film never feels overly long and gives huge amounts of pleasure, mostly due to dialogues that often bewilder and amuse at the same time. As a matter of fact, a series of conversations between the characters reveals a hidden layer of the whole lighthearted story. In a specifically obscure manner the film proclaims that everyone, no matter if depressed and lonely or not, needs their own placebo, or better, that special kick to get things going. Though a pretty familiar assumption, presented within Miki’s peculiar reality it feels all the more effective and in the end makes Susume’s dream-like adventure surprisingly valuable and relevant.
Takashi Mike’s appreciation for the surreal and the grotesque has its peak in Detective Story, a film that is neither a horror nor a comedy but in the end feels like an exquisitely executed mixture of both. Somewhere between the gut-wrenching gore-fests and the commercially successful flicks Miike created a yet another thoroughly experimental picture, definitely on top of the list of his most underappreciated pieces. It’s a rather badly written, but visually arresting, consciously designed pastiche of serial-killer genre and even the hilariously clichéd title is a perfect example of the director’s intentions. The aspects that make the story so enjoyable come straight from Miike’s usual palette of techniques. Perfect sense of timing allows him to switch back and forth between absurdity and suspense with much ease. During important scenes of grave mystery low-key lightning and shadowy colors create an atmosphere of terror, whereas the ones portraying everyday struggles of the characters are kept in a more farcical, bright-colored tone. Even though it’s less bloody and the body count is not as impressive as in most of his films, Detective Story’s phantasmagoric way of depicting murder and gore is still adequately horrifying.
The story centers on two men united by chance and by the same first name, which is basically the main source of all the recurring puns in the picture. Raita Takashima (Claude Maki), a common, if not overly perverted, salaryman moves into a wretched apartment complex in Tokyo and to his disgust realizes that the next-door neighbor is a temperamental and unpredictable, but ultimately devoted and good-humored private detective Raita Kazana (Kazuya Nakayama). To start off their buddy relationship with a bang Kazana offers drinks and Takashima reluctantly accepts. A frightened woman seeking the detective’s help interrupts their awkward get-together. However, Kazana’s drinking bout forces him to ignore the lady’s plead and when she’s found dead the next morning with her liver missing the protagonist’s guilt gets the most of him, defining his sorely heroic attitude in the later parts of the picture. While it’s apparent that Nakayama’s overly comical performance’s main purpose is to induce laughter, it’s the investigative part of the film that exhibits his character’s headstrong nature.
Takashima, now entangled in the whole murderous affair, plays the part of the typical everyman, whose point of view corresponds to the sensations experienced by the viewer. He’s baffled and scared, yet willing to go further with the mysterious plot even when another two dead women’s bodies (kidneys, lungs removed) resurface and make the case all the more serious and grisly. To everyone’s surprise Kazana’s things are discovered near the crime scenes, immediately making him the prime suspect. Due to this shocking turn of events Kazana must act in hiding, though his eagerness to solve the mystery is never diminished. Along with his two co-workers and a former secretary he comes closer to discovering the truth, but not without the help of the film’s most nightmarish figure, a serial killer caught by Kazana 15 years ago. His Hannibal Lecter-esque status makes him a source of significant advice, though his appearance is far more shocking and dreadful than the aforementioned world-renowned cannibal’s probably ever was. In fact, if not for his eerie look and a harrowing atmosphere, which accompanies this scene, the inscrutable meaning of his words would be simply laughable.
What’s good about Detective Story is that it never takes itself too seriously, even in the brutal and intense, but also plainly ridiculous finale. The storyline’s shortcomings are easily forgotten when one pays attention to Miike’s carefully structured visual narrative. And given his huge attention to endings, the film reaches its climax with a completely wild scene that’s never really surprising, but definitely highly entertaining. While there is a number of elements along the way – such as a tale of an eccentric painter obsessed with occult and a variety of amusing slapstick situations – that might’ve easily destroyed the effectiveness of the picture, Detective Story never feels overdone and goes right for the pleasure center.
Social networks have a special way of distorting the reality that surrounds us, making us somewhat intellectually numb and thus more prone to believing in things that randomly met people tell us. Though we hear about many cases of online scams that just happen to be harmless jokes, there is also a long of list of those that end up seriously damaging a victim’s bank account or even life. Still, there is a huge, scary tendency in the modern world to chat with strangers that we know nothing about. It’s been said many times that those people who feel lonely in real life sometimes hope find a visualization of their most private dreams in a person they’ve never met but somehow feel deeply attached to through the process of constant conversation on social network platforms such as Facebook. While it might be true that 1 out of 10 people can find true love while browsing through the web, there is a huge chance that the other 9 will find nothing but shameless thieves desperately trying to earn some easy money.
Babagwa presents a story of the likes of those 9 people, but seen through the eyes of sneaky criminals on the other side of the computer screen. Taking place in the Philippines, the story centers on Greg (Alex Vincent Medina) and Marney (Joey Paras), a couple of frauds that approach their victims with a carefully designed fake Facebook account. Every detail counts when it comes to setting up a seemingly perfect crime, no matter if online or not. Marney, a skirt-wearing homosexual with leadership tendencies, is the mastermind behind the whole operation, while Greg is supposed to talk to the ‘prospects’ over the phone, flirt with them, make them fall in love, which might eventually lead to the desired money transfer. Though the whole plan goes rather smoothly at first and a few harmless human beings get caught in the spider web (that’s how the title translates), Greg’s sudden and shocking change of mind makes the tables turn in a completely unpredictable and amusing way. Namely, Greg himself starts falling in love with an unknown female ‘prospect’ that he talked to over the phone, even after a successful fraud attempt takes place. He doesn’t know if Daisy (Alma Concepcion) isn’t a scammer as well, yet he forces himself to believe that this time he really found the love of his life, which eventually leads to him wanting to meet the person whose voice he’s been hearing for almost a month.
This part of the film somehow brings Catfish up to mind, yet the way the whole online farce is presented in Babagwa makes the storyline more satisfying, more brutal in its ostentatious roughness and explicitness. All those luscious, painfully pastel-colored, dream-like scenes of fake Facebook characters interacting with each other are a perfect representation of what a regular human being might see in his mind while chatting with strangers. It’s truly funny, yes, but it’s also frighteningly real in a way that makes the idea of an unpunishable stranger even more authentic and terrifying. And in all that Babagwa personalizes there is a decent amount of comicality that is spot-on considering the dark humor that perfectly fits the overall straightforwardness of the plot. Surely, the main characters are repulsive because of the things they do, but the way they’re portrayed makes them somewhat likable. They seem innocent because of their foolishness, they’re very fragile even as they commit all those vile crimes, and the emotions that they show feel very real.
The less serious narrative from the first two acts gives way to a thrilling, emotional change of pace as soon as Greg decides to follow his plan of building a virtual relationship with Daisy, putting all the other characters in the background at the same time. While Marney steals the show in the first part of the film, his presence is actually dearly missed in the other parts, given that he’s a gorgeous scene-stealer. He’s a shameless thief, but as soon as you get to know him you can’t stop seeing a strong and clever guy who’s able to manipulate everyone around him. One of the last scenes explains why it’s Marney who’s the main star of the movie and, in a particularly clever way, also shows that even the most unsuitable, silly person might become a part of the dangerous scamming machine that’s been able to fool people all around the world.
Kim Jee-woon’s, the indisputable master of violent, disturbingly intense thriller-shockers (A Bittersweet Life, I Saw the Devil), latest project is a consciously minimalistic, yet deeply enjoyable and visually stunning rom-com entitled One Perfect Day. Though it’s only a 35-minutes long short film made as a part of the 40th anniversary campaign arranged by the famous Korean clothing brand Kolon, the film’s still perfectly able to please the audiences with its light-heartedness, and invite them to contemplate on the topic of love and its way of shaping the nature of one’s life.
The film opens with a few brief, subjective shots of a glass filled with water and a woman carefully adjusting her dress. At the table in some fancy restaurant sits a man and a woman, participating in a blind date of sorts. The man (Kye-song Joon), obviously nervous and insecure, tries to impress the lady, with utterly terrible results. Though she leaves the place, he doesn’t feel discouraged and immediately takes another step in order to fulfill his probably long-lasting desire to find a perfect woman – he meets up with other girls in similarly dim-lit, quiet and chic (Shih Tzu being the word in Kye-song’s opinion) spots in the heart of Seoul. While his attention-grabbing skills are rather poor and almost always simply humiliating one of the ladies decides to go with him for a walk to the Zoo. Kye-song, being a person completely detached from the real world, finds out that the places he used to know as a child are long gone. Yet, the memories of his childhood reminded him of a rock-paper-scissors game that couples play on the famous Nansan steps. The rules are simple – the person who wins a round gets to climb a given number of stairs. The one to lose in the end has to grant a wish made by the winner. However, the lady, tired of Kye-song’s unfunny attempts at impressing her, prepares a humorously devilish plan and flees the scene. The protagonist, left alone once more, starts to reminisce about the time his father took him to the stairs, and about the party, during which one lady broke his fragile little heart.
His breakthrough moment comes in the shape of a cute puppy that suddenly pops up on the stairs out of nowhere. Kye-song finds out that the dog has been missing for a while and soon delivers him to the owner, a strikingly pretty young woman. Having nothing to lose, the lonely, incorrigible romantic decides to use the rock-paper-scissors game one more time just to see if this could be his lucky day.
One Perfect Day is mostly a rom-com like many others, but with its on-the-spot comical rock-paper-scissors sub-theme and appealing imagery (beautiful shots of Soul at night, along with petals falling carelessly on the ground) it builds up almost a farcical ambiance around its protagonist on a quest to find love. Though there’s no time for character development, the movie presents its story in a coherent manner, bringing to mind only joy and warmth. Kim Jee-woon’s return to homeland marks another milestone, proving that a talented director is able to jump through genres without any troubles.