Review: Sion Sono's 'Why Don't You Play in Hell?' offers carnage in the name of cinema
VENICE -Some films are born midnight movies, some achieve midnight-movie status, and others have midnight-movie status thrust upon them. It’s the third route that is by far the least reliable or enduring: there’s nothing so antithetical to notion of cult cinema as the idea that it can be calculated and declared (or worse still, self-declared) out loud. From its ungainly, eccentric title downwards, Sion Sono’s manic postmodern bloodbath “Why Don’t You Play in Hell?” falls squarely in that category, weird and woolly and sporadically amusing as it may be.
Part ultra-violent yakuza actioner, part dorky wish-fulfilment comedy in the “Kick-Ass” vein, both parts cranked extremely loud and incredibly close, “Hell” ends up playing its contrasting genre trappings against one another. Using the semblance of one to deny considered engagement with the other – it’s not really a grisly body-count thriller if it makes you laugh, apparently – Sono covers all his ideological bases by positioning the film as a love letter to cinema.
That’s a hackneyed but unimpeachable claim, intended to give it the high ground even when it’s splashing gleefully in the gutter. As such, “Hell” is populated with eager Sono-surrogate youths brandishing cameras, making knowingly shoddy B-movies-within-B-movies, and bathing in analogue nostalgia. When a standard-issue scene in the film features a young woman filling an antagonist’s mouth with broken glass, then aggressively Frenching him until the shards puncture his cheeks, you have to take your comforts where you can find them. And even at its most effortfully haphazard – freely bisecting stray bodies with swords and strewing their remains across the frame, doing its best and most directly appropriated Tarantino snarl while an approximation of Santa Esmerelda disco pulses on the soundtrack – there’s a preening quality to its provocations, a constant wink at the audience reminding them that’s it right to be wrong.
The narrative is at once furiously complicated and inessential, a skeleton on which to hang extravagant, hit-and-miss set pieces. Still, an opening scene that at first seems a jokey non-sequitur – a pop-brite toothpaste commercial in which a button-cute Japanese tyke sings a cheery but aggressive jingle that implores listeners to “gnash your teeth, let’s fly!” – proves eventually to be one of the more identifiable plots points here. The kid, Mitsuko, is the daughter of yakuza boss Muto (Jun Kunimara), whose wife is sent to prison for massacring a rival gang during a home raid.
The scandalous incident nips Mitsuko’s acting career in the bud; a decade later, with her mother on the verge of parole, the now-grown Mitsuko (Fumi Nikaido) is starring in a film bankrolled by her father that she impulsively abandons halfway through production. (Think Lindsay Lohan with less dilated pupils and a mean right hook.) Muto’s attempt to continue the production on his own eventually collide with the hitherto isolated antics of misleadingly named troupe The Fuck Bombers, a group of awkward young movie geeks making their own on-the-fly kung fu flicks. The lengthy, tangled finale sees both crews’ shoots merge with a grisly, climactic real-life yakuza battle: history’s most high-octane snuff movie is there for the making, if only any of the crew can, quite literally, keep their heads about them.
That very rough synopsis makes the fallout seem tidier than it is. In practice, it’s hard to keep track of sides amid the wall-to-wall waterslides of blood, the cast’s unrelentingly high-key performance style and the shrieking spaghetti-western samples that pervade the soundtrack. I have no doubt that those who give themselves over to the racket will find it genuinely, thrillingly subversive, and maybe it is: Toronto’s Midnight Madness programmers think so, as do Drafthouse Films, which has boldly picked up this spiky novelty for US distribution.
But even allowing for a certain degree of Not My Thing, it felt to me like a put-on from Sono, whose creative high-water mark remains his four-hour epic of deranged teenage lust, “Love Exposure” – a film whose eccentricities are no less wild or chaotic than those of his latest, but feel born of genuine, agonized feeling. Even within the film’s gonzo universe, none of the characters has much in the way of inner life; Sono’s ardent movie-love does comes through loud and clear in the film’s litany of cinematic references – both Eastern and Western, high and low – but this is the kind of self-reflexive movie that congratulates itself just for being a movie at all. “Make a damn good movie, even if it’s only one!” the characters cry at various intervals in the carnage, which is rather a low-aiming manifesto for a director who has already made at least one damn good movie. “Why Don’t You Play In Hell?,” for all its spirited schlock, isn’t pushing that number upwards.