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Wednesday, July 27, 2005
A little ditty that stays in your head
Nobuhiro Yamashita is a deadpan minimalist in the Aki Kaurismaki and Jim Jarmusch line, making films whose comedy derives from exact, wry observation of the offbeat in the midst of the mundane. He found his ideal subject and characters in "Realism no Yado (Ramblers)." Based on a Yoshiharu Tsuge comic, this 2003 film was about a wannabe scriptwriter and director who ends up lost and broke in a godforsaken backwater, the punchline in a cosmic joke. For the first 10 minutes I thought I would have to slap myself to stay awake -- but by the end I had laughed myself silly.
Yamashita's latest film, "Linda, Linda, Linda," also starts off slowly and deceptively. Set in a provincial high school, and with a storyline about a girl band's dream of school-festival glory, at first glance this seems to be Yamashita's leap (or shuffle) into the mainstream. It has idol talents in the cast, starting with Yu Kashi of "Lorelei" fame, as well as a soundtrack by a foreign pop star -- James Iha, formerly of The Smashing Pumpkins.
Yamashita, however, is still Yamashita -- that beat poet of the quotidian -- and "Linda, Linda, Linda" makes most Japanese teen band and sports films look fake to varying degrees. Nearly all the conventional tropes of this subgenre -- the initial defeats and humiliations, the clashes with unsympathetic teachers and classmates and the final triumph before a huge, cheering crowd -- are conspicuous by their absence.
The usual tag for Yamashita's approach is "documentary realism," but even documentary filmmakers often hype their material for effect; Michael Moore being a notorious offender. But not Yamashita. Instead, he shows us the way Japanese high-school life actually unfolds, the tedium of band practice included. He also gets the way teens really relate to each other -- with the emotional temperature set on cool and the verbal volume on low. He also gets the way they can suddenly downshift maturity gears from 16 to 10 -- or upshift to 25.
He first introduces us to three band members: cute-but-quiet Nozomi (Shiori Sekine) on bass; bossy, steel-willed Kei (Yu Kashi) on guitar; and perky, boy-crazy Kyoko (Aki Maeda) on drums. Just before their performance at the school festival -- their one real chance to shine -- their lead guitarist and vocalist drops out, claiming to have an injured hand.
Now unable to perform the original songs they have so laboriously rehearsed, the girls instead decide to do "Linda, Linda, Linda," a three-chord rocker by the 1980s Japanese band The Blue Hearts. Kei can sub on lead guitar, but they still need a vocalist. They search unsuccessfully until, out of desperation, they ask a gawky, big-eyed Korean exchange-student named Song (Bae Doona), who immediately agrees even though she can barely speak Japanese, let alone rock in it.
How can the girls get their act together, with the festival only three days away? Here is where the average teen film would kick into high, frantic gear, as though a three-minute performance in a high-school gym were a Broadway opening. And sure, Kei, Nozomi and Kyoko work hard enough -- we see them passed out around their instruments more than once -- but they refuse to overdo it.
Despite a laser glare that looks as though it could slice titanium, Kei never goes ballistic, even when Kyoko is late for a practice after dallying with a dishy male classmate at a festival crepe stand. Instead, she stays resolutely on task, dragging everyone to a rehearsal studio where her guitarist boyfriend plays. (He's quite the catch for a high-school kid, even though he's a stocking-capped dropout who can barely string two coherent sentences together.)
Song, as might be expected, is the odd girl out, taking her new role with a grim seriousness that her bandmates smile at -- but never mock. This forbearance, one might argue, is the film's most glaring departure from realism: Aren't Japanese teenagers, as dozens of films and TV dramas have shown us, cruel to outsiders -- especially the unstylish and uncool?
Song, though, is less a bumbling nerd than a pure-hearted, unspoiled girl of the old school -- a type her bandmates find refreshing and one boy finds captivating. (His fumbling declaration of love is one of the film's comic high points.) Also, her voice has a power and drive that is perfect for The Blue Hearts' song, if only she can unleash it.
As Song, Korean star Bae Doona steals every scene she's in, without a trace of effort or self-consciousness. "Linda, Linda, Linda," however, is less her vehicle than Yamashita's close, affectionate look at that short, precious moment called youth. He gets it right, while making it look easy -- which is quite an accomplishment.
Other, slicker, teen movies will doubtless make more box-office noise, but tune in to Yamashita's little low-watt film. It will be playing in your head long after the rest have vanished into the ether.