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Sunday, Sep. 18, 2011

WEEK 3

Expat filmmaker knows what Japanese cult movie fans expect


By DAVID F. HOENIGMAN
Special to The Japan Times

French-Canadian Alex Paille came to Japan in 2006 to teach English, study martial arts and try his hand as a manga artist. His artistic drive took a new direction when one of his English students turned out to be internationally renowned filmmaker Sion Sono ("Cold Fish," "Love Exposure," "Suicide Club").

News photo
Lucky in Tokyo: Filmmaker Alex Paille got his start from his English student, director Sono Sion. DAVID F. HOENIGMAN. COURTESY ALEX PAILLE

"We became friends, and I became his private English teacher," says Paille. "Then we started talking about films all the time. Eventually one day he just gave me a camera and told me, 'make a film with this.' "

Paille's films "Karma" and "You+Me=Love" would follow, with Sono playing an integral role in assembling casts and providing overall encouragement, though Paille finds the concept amusing.

"Encouragement?" Paille repeats with a chuckle, "Yeah, I guess so, he's always pushing me to do something. When I wrote 'Karma,' he read it, scrunched it up in a ball, threw it away and then rewrote it."

Though Sono shares a cowriting credit for the thriller "Karma," Paille wrote, directed, produced and edited the splatter action comedy "You+Me=Love" by himself. The film was enthusiastically received at The Yubari Fantastic Film Festival in Hokkaido earlier this year. In fact, interest in the film was so high that additional seating had to be brought in during the screening.

And what did his ever-demanding mentor have to say? "He said it was a great film, but he was just being nice," says Paille. But it's hard to imagine Sono would have invested such time and effort into the development of the young filmmaker if he hadn't seen an artist of significant potential.

I arrive on the set of Paille's current project "Marichan Gambare" ("Mari Does Her Best") to discover that the main set is actually Paille's Tokyo apartment, with additional filming done guerrilla-style in the surrounding streets. The rather small, unairconditioned apartment is crowded with actors in preparation. Takashi Nishina (son of legendary actor Takuzo Kawatani) is rubbing shoe polish on his clothing in order to appear sufficiently destitute for his portrayal of a homeless man in a scene to be filmed that day. Lead actress Yaeko Kiyose is flipping through the script discussing dialogue with Paille. Three other actors exchange jackets and hats trying to come up with convincing low-level yakuza thug combinations. Nishina finds a yellow pig-tailed wig lying around, puts it on under his crumbled homeless guy hat and is wholeheartedly applauded by the rest of the cast as having perfected the look.

One of the actors looks slightly familiar and when he introduces himself in English I'm surprised to discover that it's Masanori Mimoto, star of the hit cult film "Alien vs. Ninja."

It's obvious that being within Sono's inner circle has greased the wheels when it comes to casting. Though Paille is no slouch for spotting talent himself. He met relatively unknown Kiyose a few months earlier at the film festival in Yubari, saw something he liked, and gave her a call when the role of Mari came up. But just what kind of movie are they making?

Absurdist splatter-sitcom "Marichan Gambare" follows the adventures of a young Tokyo woman (Kiyose) as she tries one daffy scheme after another in hopes of achieving get-rich-quick success in the trend-happy metropolis. She fills empty bottles with tap water and goes into the bottled water business. She even starts a maid cafe out of her apartment.

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Actress Yaeko Kiyose pulls a face on set.

Paille says the film is "especially for the otaku (fan boy) culture abroad, though I think the otaku here will like it too, I really wanted to show the ridiculous side of Tokyo."

Take a look at one of Paille's Facebook posts during filming and it's clear to see what he means by ridiculous: "Day 1 of shooting: A man got his fingers broken one by one, then he got beaten and eaten alive by angry hostesses in a bar. I got beat up by a yakuza. Two girls stripped and danced, then woke up in the same bed the next morning with a man in his underwear barking like a dog next to their bed."

Weekly episodes of "Marichan Gambare" will be uploaded to YouTube starting in late September. Paille decided to go the YouTube route in order to broaden his exposure.

"My previous movies haven't been uploaded anywhere, but I really want to show what I do to people everywhere, so I made this specifically for the Internet."

Because of the interest in all things Tokyo by the hordes of dedicated otaku overseas, Paille hopes "Marichan" just might have what it takes to go viral.

Though opting for an Internet release over the festival route is a departure from the modus operandi of his first two films, an important aspect of Paille's work has been consistent throughout all three projects: All of the actors in his films are Japanese, the dialogue is delivered in Japanese, and the vast majority of on set exchanges between director and cast are done in Japanese. Although he appears very adept in his adopted country's tongue, one wonders if there are times when cultural and linguistic differences come into play.

"The hardest thing is to explain what I really want. At first, in my first project, I was really trying to tell them deeply what I wanted to show, but they're not going to understand me anyway, so I've learned that you have to stay simple in your explanations," says Paille. "Even though my Japanese isn't that good, it doesn't matter because they still kind of get what I mean since most of them have worked with me for the last three years. So we're starting to understand each other pretty well. My Japanese has gotten a little better too."

Paille first writes the scripts in English, and friends or cast members then lend a hand translating them into Japanese.

Whatever obstacles exist, the 26-year-old Canadian considers himself first and foremost a Japanese filmmaker.

"Everything I've learned about filmmaking has been since I came to Japan. I wouldn't know how to make a film in America or anywhere else, I want to continue working and applying what I've learned here in Japan."

And it appears the Japanese film industry has opened its arms to this eager Westerner — Sono isn't the only luminary to have taken a shine to Paille. He's also developed a friendship with director and splatter effects maestro Yoshihiro Nishimura ("Tokyo Gore Police," "Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl"). Paille worked in Nishimura's workshop three days a week to learn the tricks of the gore trade, and receive directorial advice.

"He told me you have to have comedy, not just action and seriousness because it just gets boring."

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Marichan (Kiyose) attends to a customer at her at-home maid cafe.

Once a week Paille also meets with actor/director/international heartthrob Tak Sakaguchi (star of "Versus," "Yakuza Weapon") for two hours of English then two hours of grappling and boxing. And it may be Paille who is getting the best side of the arrangement: "the only thing (Sakaguchi) seems to remember is dirty words," says Paille with a laugh. "No, I shouldn't say that. His English is improving."

When Paille recently uploaded the trailer for "Marichan Gambare," he received a phone call from the man who had originally set him on this path. Sono praised Paille for the progress he's made thus far and invited him to be a crew member on his next production. If the trailer alone could inspire such enthusiasm, one wonders what overseas otaku will think when they click on the first episode.

Follow "Marichan Gambare" at www.alexpaille.com or on twitter @ALEXGUMI


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