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Friday, May 20, 2011
'Extreme indie' filmmaker explores life without borders
Japan's indie film sector, never terribly robust financially, is now fighting for its life. Technically, of course, it has never been easier to make indie films. The problem is the lack of theaters willing to screen them and fans willing to see them. Even one-time indie stalwarts such as Sion Sono, Ryuichi Hiroki and Hirokazu Kore-eda are making more commercial films, while keeping just one foot in the indie camp.
But not Masashi Yamamoto, who after a career of nearly three decades, remains resolutely indie. On the website for his new omnibus "Three Points" he has even posted an "extreme indies declaration," in which he reminds us that in addition to the path of commercialism, "there is another way to make films."
"The answer lies in your beginnings," he explains — the time when "you had no money, nothing but enthusiasm." (He neglects to mention a need for plenty of friends willing to work for free.)
In filming this part-documentary, part-fiction three-segment experiment, Yamamoto uses the indie tricks he learned in making his first feature "Yami no Kanibaru" ("Carnival in the Night"), which screened at the 1983 Berlin Festival, and "Janku Fudo" ("Junk Food"), his rambling, up-close 1999 tour through an underworld populated by gangsters, drug addicts and other marginals. Much of "Three Points" is shot guerrilla-style, and you can tell he has kept one eye out for the cops and another out for interesting subjects, from quaint locals to the criminally inclined.
In the first segment, set in Okinawa, we meet Tetchan, a burly homeless guy skilled at fishing huge crabs out of the muck with his bare hands; a grizzled pool hall owner, who reminisces about the area's Vietnam-War-era glory days, from the street fights to the easy money; and young Marines waiting their turn at a local tattoo parlor, who chat with disarming candor about their reasons for enlisting (steady paycheck and so on).
Yamamoto is fearless, curious and persistent — all qualities helpful for a documentary filmmaker. Also, unusual for someone shooting in the politically charged climate of Okinawa, he takes an open, sympathetic view of the various inhabitants, instead of trying to make a case or advance a cause. Despite his (deliberately) scanty preparation, he manages to capture the sort of footage, from the grotesquely funny to the starkly revealing, you will never see on CNN.
The second segment, set in Kyoto, introduces elements of fiction in three separate episodes, with everything from cast to story decided on the fly. In the first, a young rapper, just out of prison, earnestly tries to get his career back on track, while his fun-loving girlfriend seems eager to derail him. In the second, a former rapper who has been on the run reunites with an old pal, but the celebration is cut short. In the third, a rapper about to go to prison for a robbery has a going-away party, but his tetchy girlfriend threatens to spoil his sendoff. These stories begin to blend and blur, but exude a rough-edged authenticity.
The film's third segment, set in Tokyo and titled "Switch," resembles a conventional fiction film, with professional actors and a plotted story. But like the others, it is made with an indie sensibility that values spontaneity over polish.
Iga (Jun Murakami), a handsome drifter, rescues Saki (Sola Aoi), a sexy office worker, from a street gang after her date with a cowardly lover goes wrong. Iga gets beaten to a pulp for his trouble and Saki, feeling obliged, takes him to her apartment to recuperate. He ends up staying, much to her annoyance — and creeping dread.
Yamamoto does not take this story in a Hollywood romcom direction (scary bum turns out to be prince of a guy, etc.) — or almost any direction I could have imagined. Instead, the story's twist reminded me of Luis Bunuel, that master of cinematic surrealism and sleight of hand.
With more fleshing out of its characters and situations, "Switch" could have been expanded to a full-length feature with commercial potential. Also, Yamamoto could have kept his two leads. As Iga, Murakami is at first hard to read — is he a scamp or psychopath? — but as he reveals the character's secrets, he shows us that the man behind the mask was there all along. Former porn star Aoi may not be the most subtle of actresses, but she nails Saki's shape-shifting nature with the confidence of a woman who once made a living giving men their illusions of choice.
So what is the point of the exercise?
Borders, in the form of cultural prejudices against the Other or psychological barriers against innermost desires, are finally illusions; be we farm boys from Ohio or street kids from Kyoto, we're all in this stew of life together, says Yamamoto. And he illustrates this assertion without drawing the usual distinctions between fiction and nonfiction. "Three Points" is his ultimate borderless film.