Hyperbole aside, Sion Sono may be one of the greatest working filmmakers alive. Although he started working in the mid-1980s, it’s really only in the last few years that international audiences have caught on to his uniquely insightful brand of storytelling, thanks to films like Love Exposure and Cold Fish, which combine oddball ideas with powerful cultural commentaries, not to mention moving emotional messages. His latest work, Why Don’t You Play In Hell?, feels like a tribute to his earliest days as a director, executed with the sophistication that could only come with age and experience. A love letter to the art of cinema, paired with an oddly moving family story and framed by a yakuza tale, Why Don’t You Play In Hell? is wild, unruly, and hugely entertaining, whether you’re looking for a grand artistic vision, emotional resonance, or just two hours of plain old fun.
The film opens with yakuza boss Muto (Jun Kunimura), whose wife Shizue (Tomochika) decimates a small army of rival gangsters when they try to murder her husband. As she languishes in prison, Muto feeds her tales of their daughter Mitsuko’s (Fumi Nikaido) acting career, which unfortunately stalled after news of Shizue’s brutal retaliation to the assassination got the girl’s toothpaste commercial pulled off the air. But as the time of Shizue’s release nears, Muto decides to make a movie in order to pay tribute to his wife’s sacrifice; unfortunately, he knows nothing about filmmaking. But after crossing paths with Don Hirata (Hiroki Hasegawa), a fearless amateur who aspires to become a director, Muto’s cinematic aspirations and professional rivalries collide, as Don enlists the gangster’s oldest rival to stage an epic showdown with Mitsuko at the center of it.
Like many of Sion Sono’s films, Why Don’t You Play In Hell? plays better on a second viewing, or even just in retrospect, mostly because you can never anticipate what’s going to happen, and the cumulative impact only adds up after you’ve seen all of its surprises unfold. But as a purely visceral experience, the film is cinematic schizophrenia, leap-frogging from one story line to the next with an unpredictability that can be disorienting, but also exhilarating. For the first hour or more of the film, Don Hirata’s filmmaking ambitions feel like a superfluous tribute to amateur moviemaking, shoe-horned into a gangster story. But once Shizue gets scheduled for release from prison, the machinery of the yakuza narrative and Hirata’s merge seamlessly, as if they were made for one another, but in an entirely unexpected way.
Sono’s effortless juggling of these different kinds of movies – a blend of genres, almost – produces its own, singular tone, sometimes cartoonish but never bereft of emotional weight. That Muto carries on extramarital affairs is something that’s addressed lightly, for example, but the character’s speech about the distinction in their importance relative to his wife makes a remarkable pivot into incredibly heartfelt territory. But by the time Mitsuko’s toothpaste commercial has played for the hundredth time, its silly jingle has become an amazing, convincing catalyst for transformed expectations and romantic notions, combining the sacred and the profane, the silly and the serious, into a harmonious emotional stew.
The film’s climax is an eruption of, well, everything – emotional honesty, creative consummation, and of course, blood and guts. But Sono observes the way that cinema, or even perhaps just media perception, has completely affected the way we see ourselves and the world around us. Because of the nobility of samurai films, Muto’s enemies dress in traditional kimonos, but they still contemplate mundane, modern problems, and yearn to be able to look as cool as the characters they’re imitating – which is why they end up agreeing to the on-camera standoff. But Don’s camera also works as an obstacle to reality, protecting him – temporarily, at least – from the realities of violence, filming the confrontations, swordplay, and shootouts with complete disregard for his own safety.
Because Sono allegedly wrote the film 15 or so years ago, the film boasts the enthusiasm of a young filmmaker, surging from one genre to the next, combining discordant plot lines into a rich, colorful and unexpectedly vivid tapestry. But it also has the polish, and the poetry, of an experienced one, who’s able to create striking, meaningful imagery and imbue it with emotional substance. And more importantly, Sono takes a personal journey and makes it identifiable; this isn’t merely feverish wish-fulfillment, or a goof on his own professional journey, but a noisy, and yet weirdly symphonic, portrait of identity, filtered through the prism of the media. Although it doesn’t quite have the resonance of the films mentioned above, Why Don’t You Play In Hell? is a wonderful film, messy, ambitious and expertly orchestrated, drawing audiences into the whirlpool of its creativity with youthful enthusiasm, and then anchoring them in its story with maturity and sophistication.
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