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Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2001

Disturbing signals from distant Planet Y

All About Lily Chou Chou

Rating: * * * 1/2
Director: Shunji Iwai
Running time: 146 minutes
Language: Japanese
Now showing

The observation that teenagers live on another planet is nothing new. But in Japan today, that planet seems more like the asteroid belt -- tumbling rocks of teen culture that are not only harder to reach, but inhabited by ever smaller communities.

Those communities still gather at places like Harajuku, where goths in black leather warily eye girls dressed like Little Bo Peep, but more and more are meeting in cyberspace, particularly in the chat rooms and on message boards that attract everyone from death-metal fans to hamster lovers. Adults lurk at their own risk -- overexposure to the attitudinizing, self-absorption and bad writing therein can cause everything from existential despair to profound withdrawal into the prose of Jane Austen.

Among the more knowledgeable over-30 adventurers in these realms is Shunji Iwai, the director of "Love Letter," "Swallowtail" and "Shigatsu Monogatari (April Story)." Trained in the craft of the music video and TV commercial -- which is the craft of keeping itchy young fingers off remote buttons -- Iwai has a sophisticated grasp of the digital tools that filmmakers use today to create and manipulate images. He and cinematographer Noboru Shinoda are also the nearest Japanese equivalent to the Hong Kong-based director Wong Kar-wai and cinematographer Christopher Doyle ("Chungking Express," "In the Mood for Love") -- joint authors of a cinematic style that is impeccably postmodern on its surface, but romantic at its core; that finds truth more in glancing impressions than sustained observations; that would rather lose itself in deliquescent dreams than thread its way through labyrinths of plot.

Both Iwai and Wong have been accused, rightly, of navel-gazing and ego-tripping, but, for all Wong's posturing, he is an adult filmmaker concerned with adult themes, while Iwai has clung to certain adolescent attitudes and concerns, almost as if, in his mid-30s, he were still trying to be the coolest guy in the film school to impress the coolest girl. With his pop-star good looks and long, tea-colored hair, Iwai is everywhere in the media -- and in every frame of his work. He evidently is enjoying himself, but anyone outside of his clique tends to feel excluded.

This style and sensibility, however, are well-suited to his latest film, "All About Lily Chou Chou." The hero, Yuichi (Hayato Ichihachi), is a second-year junior high school student in an idyllic countryside, whose life revolves around Lily Chou Chou, a pop singer with a throaty delivery, a druggy sound and mysterious charisma. With his classmates, Yuichi indulges in typical teenage crime, such as shoplifting CDs and selling the rejects to used-record shops, while running into typical teenage trouble, such as a bullying session with older boys that leaves him a shattered wreck.

Yuichi, as it turns out, is a wimp and a tool, who survives the perils of adolescent life by attaching himself to the stronger and sullenly doing their bidding. Then, when he can't stand it anymore, he retreats to his private world of CDs and Internet chat, where he is free to express his true feelings to strangers, particularly a girl who goes by the handle "blue cat."

Flashback to 1999, when Yuichi was a first-year junior high school student -- before the fall from grace. He becomes friends with Hoshino (Shugo Oshinari), a boy in his class and his kendo club who is a natural leader and an excellent student -- i.e., everything Yuichi is not. Yuichi also develops a crush on Kuno (Ayumi Ito), a girl in his chorus club who is an accomplished pianist -- and is barely aware of his existence.

Then summer comes and Hoshino, Yuichi and other kendo club members go to Okinawa on money they rip off from a gang of punks (who in turn ripped it off from a man in a parking lot). There they meet pretty girls, friendly locals and have the time of their young lives. The good vibes turn bad, however, when a hippie acquaintance nearly loses his life in a road accident and Hoshino nearly drowns. It is almost as though the island gods have cursed them. When the new semester begins, Hoshino returns with a new, dark personality, beating and bullying with a casual cruelty. He makes Yuichi his slave -- and his life a living hell.

Hoshino and his henchmen expand their criminal career beyond petty larceny, forcing a classmate, Tsuda (Yu Aoi), into prostitution, with Yuichi serving as go-between. Meanwhile, a clique of punk girls take a dislike to Kuno and, with Yuichi's assistance, subject her to tortures worthy of the Taliban.

Meanwhile, Yuichi pours out his love for Lily Chou Chou on the Internet nightly, while in the daytime he retires to a nearby rice field to listen to her music -- and wrestle with what remains of his soul. When, we wonder, is the worm going to turn?

In Iwai's hands, this tale of the teen-world-as-jungle has a persuasive authority, as though Iwai is not observing these kids so much as getting inside their heads. But the lushness of the imagery (all those gorgeous shots of blue skies and waving rice) and the beauty of the music (Debussy's "Arabesque" providing accompaniment to the torments of the damned) begins to feel distanced and smug. Also, as its 146-minute running time indicates, "All About Lily Chou Chou" lives up to its title all too literally, with the hero's self-involvement mirroring the director's self-indulgence.

There is nonetheless something entrancing about the film's neverending journey across the howling moral wilderness of its characters' lives. By the end we understand why Yuichi can't live without Lily: In a world gone wrong, she is the only one who will never betray him.

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