Thirty-Day Movie Challenge: Day Ten

30 Day Movie Challenge:

Day Ten: Favorite Foreign Film
Survive Style 5+ (2004)
Directed by: Gen Sekiguchi
Starring: Tadanobu Asano, Kyôko Koizumi, Vinnie Jones, Ittoku Kishibe

With foreign films I’ve run into people from both ends of the spectrum. There are those who refuse to watch them, because of the reading involved. I used to think that was a joke from movies and TV shows. It’s a little disheartening when you come to realize it’s not. Then there are people who refuse to watch anything but foreign films. It’s their contention that anything in their own language could never possibly have the depth, humor, pathos, meaning and integrity of something by a director like Kurosawa or Ingmar Bergman.

Neither of those perspectives has ever made a lot of sense to me. One strikes me as ignorant and narrow, and the other strikes me as both of those things and also just a wee bit pretentious. It’s hard for me to imagine limiting myself that severely with what I might enjoy. It goes back to what I said in the review of Dancer in the Dark about trying to do away with those stupid prejudices when it comes to movies and the like. It’s good to know what you dig, but it’s a shame to miss out on the potential to be completely blown-away by something you didn’t expect to enjoy. With things like Netflix Instant Watch, Hulu, YouTube and all the rest there’s really no excuse for not taking a few chances. I sure as hell wish that stuff had existed when all I had to go on were crappy video stores and depressingly limited movie channels.

That makes me sound like the kind of old-timer who lives on his front porch with a bottle of Old Crow, a carton of cigarettes and decades of bitterness to keep them company. That might be me in thirty more years, but I’d like to think I’m not there just yet.

Survive Style 5+ is not actually my favorite foreign film of all time, but I do have what I think is a pretty good reason for choosing it. Picking a single favorite above all the others would have been as difficult as the overall favorite from day one. Most likely it would have come down to a four-way tie between The Seventh Seal, Children of Paradise, Suspiria, and Yojimbo. What struck me as more appealing was to go with a favorite that’s never really gotten a lot of attention since its release seven years ago. Survive Style 5+ is something of a forgotten gem. It’s not going to be for everybody, but it’s at least worth a try.

Something bad is about to happen. I think we can all sense that from this picture alone.

Japan has a well-deserved reputation for having elements in their popular culture that seem to Western audiences like an acid trap without any acid for miles. A lot of it finds a strong audience in this neck of the world. Some of it winds up only appealing to weirdoes like me. Survive Style 5+ is very distinctly the product of its country, but it’s not wholly outside of what you’re likely familiar with. If you want to look at it as an alternative take on movies like Pulp Fiction or the early Guy Ritchie crime films (the presence of Vinnie Jones in Survive Style 5+ then begins to make sense), then that’s as good a way as any to get your foot in the door. Keep in mind though that this is a movie that is playing within its own small universe. First-time director Gen Sekiguchi and screenwriter Taku Tada have their own way of dictating the movie’s delirious pace, odd characters and bizarre storytelling. You’re either going to be on board it, or you’re not. It seems like pure insanity from its reckless beginning to surreal end, but that’s perhaps the genius of Sekiguchi and Tada. Tada’s script contains several characters and stories whose paths occasionally interact (some more closely than others) throughout. Sekiguchi does a brilliant job of juggling the parts that have some bearing on the characters and stories with the parts that seem exist for no particular reason but to add to movie’s brightly-colored, madhouse personality. He keeps us moving as the movie constantly veers into stranger and stranger territory.

Don’t worry too much about sorting out the meaningful parts from the sheer nonsense. The trick is to just sit back and relax. See how the first ten minutes treat you. We meet a man (the hilarious Tadanobu Asano) who has murdered his wife (Reika Hashimoto) and is burying her out in the woods. We never learn the reason why. What we do learn is that when he goes home, she’s there waiting for him with a giant meal she’s prepared. Most of us would call Max Von Sydow at this point. This poor, potentially dim bastard eats the entire meal, lights a cigarette and then seems surprised when his zombie (?) wife knocks him on his ass and tries to kill him. He manages to kill and bury her again, and from there seems less and less surprised that she keeps coming back for vengeance. Each time she returns with a new, completely unexplained super power (like fire) of some kind.

That’s just one story, and it touches on several of the others. It’s a jumping point to an advertising executive (the very funny Kyôko Koizumi), whose commercials seem to be more obsessed with being off-the-wall and clever than they do with actually selling the product (this is illustrated so well in a couple of scenes in which she is presenting her ads to a company president played by the legendary Sonny Chiba in a memorable cameo). She sleeps with an arrogant, dense hypnotist (Hiroshi Abe), but then hires a hit man (Vinnie Jones, playing his thug persona for strong laughs) when Abe makes fun of her afterwards. Vinnie spends most of his time with a translator (Yoshiyoshi Arakawa) asking strangers and victims alike what they feel their function on this planet is. He still carries out the hit on Abe, but not before Abe hypnotizes a hapless, kind businessman (Ittoku Kishibe) into thinking he’s a bird on a live TV show. Kishibe then spends the rest of the movie putting his family through hell as the most depressed man-bird in film history (there might be more of them in cinema—I don’t want to be presumptuous). The way he meets Asano at the end is magnificent and must be seen to be believed. Within all this is also a trio of robbers (Jai West, Yoshiyuki Morishita and Kanji Tsuda) struggling with their current career choice. In the case of Morishita there’s an additional struggle with feelings for West told throughout the film with drinking games and staring contests put to sexual techno songs in the background. It plays out as the sweetest subplot in the entire movie.

This exact thing has happened to me many, many, many times.

All of this amounts to merely the basics of Survive Style 5+. Other unreal touches include actually seeing several of Koizumi’s commercial ideas that ramble around in her head, Abe’s disturbing stage show and medical science having pretty much no clue as to how to cure Kishibe’s condition. Just remember that not everything has a point here. If you’re addicted after those first ten minutes, then you’re probably going to be fine with that.

Survive Style 5+ won out, because I remembered the sheer wonderful surprise of watching this for the first time. It was at one of my first Anime conventions, and I didn’t know a single thing about it. There were no expectations. In fact I can’t even recall why I was in that video room to begin with. I do know that I was in for the long haul after those first ten minutes. I don’ think I’m special for immediately understanding that this movie was going to exist in its own universe. It simply worked for me.  You’re going to miss out if you at least don’t try to see if it works for you, too. Anyone who wants to stop by is more than welcome to.  Survive Style 5+ has the door wide open, and the first step after walking through is as much of a dozy as any other. This is a movie that deserves a lot more attention than it seems to get.

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