Walking away from the recently wrapped Fantasia Film Festival with a couple of Cheval Noir prizes under its arm, perhaps the most significant win for Sion Sono’s “Tag” was a special mention for its “creative, surprising, and monumental opening kill sequence.” Indeed, there will be few scenes this year as memorable, audacious, hilarious, and bloody — all at the same time — as watching two bus loads of high school girls get sliced in half by a deadly wind. Yes, seriously, a malevolent breeze does them in. That’s the stage Sono sets for “Tag,” and even more remarkably he doesn’t let that moment outshine the rest of the movie that is delightfully happy to sit somewhere between “The Matrix” and “The Truman Show,” but on acid.
Reina Triendle leads the picture as Mitsuko, and she’s having a pretty bad day. She’s the lone survivor of the bus massacre, except as she goes to find help, she strangely manages to find herself back at her school, and even more strangely, all of her classmates are alive and well. Everything seems familiar but slightly unreal at the same time. Was it a nightmare? Is she still dreaming? Mitsuko isn’t quite sure, but she’s given a prophetic piece of advice from a friend: “Life is surreal. Don’t let it get to you. Don’t let it consume you.”
To call what happens to Mitsuko next surreal is certainly an understatement. Without spoiling too much, because half the fun is watching in wide-eyed wonder what Sono pulls out of his sleeve next, she stumbles down a rabbit hole of alternate realities where the dangers she survived in the bus pale in comparison. It’s intentionally, ridiculously over the top, and Sono has a great time conjuring the increasingly odd situations to throw his protagonist into, but it’s not without a point.
Running through the film is a pronounced feminist current, one that is actually quite fascinating amid all the carnage. Mitsuko, and the various guises she undertakes as she drops into each new world, slowly adjusts from becoming someone who is passive and reactionary to the situation around her, to someone who begins to literally shape her destiny. It’s something of a warped approach to the coming-of-age story, but Sono’s entry into addressing the fears that young women face as they transition into adulthood is clever. The heightened story makes a perfect bedfellow to the heightened emotions that teenagers feel, and it allows for a thematic thread that ensures “Tag” is more than just a gonzo ride.
That said, Sono is mostly concerned with pushing limits rather than pushing any agendas. For much of the film, this is fine. His go-for-broke approach only leaves a little bit of breathing room, which is judiciously used when the narrative needs some space to slow down, but otherwise, the filmmaker packs as much as possible into his 90-minute movie. However, when it’s time to wrap things up there’s something of a clash between Sono’s desire to deliver the finale the movie deserves while not letting some the picture’s more inspiring notions fall by the wayside. Unfortunately, when the filmmaker finally lifts the lid on why Mitsuko has been caught in this crazy loop, it’s not so much disappointing, as not wholly satisfying. Moreover, it leaves any conclusion on the thematic angle left to hang without any resolution.
However, it’s worth being reminded that this is a movie that starts with extreme violence, not high drama. It’s also quite lighthearted as well, a batshit comedy of sorts, which makes Sono’s ability to weave a social message throughout, and keep it present but understated, quite admirable. For those just looking for straight out madness, “Tag” gets the job done, and the Explosions In The Sky-esque score is also another surprising, creative touch that manages to work quite well.
One of a reported half-dozen movies Sono will release this year, it’s inevitable that some will miss (read our review of “Shinjuku Swan”), but from what I’ve seen so far, none of these projects feel rushed or tossed off. Sono is investigating a variety of cinematic languages at the moment, and in that sense, “Tag” is somewhat primitive on the surface (the VFX seem to have been done on a modest budget, but their lo-fi quality only helps the movie) but with some serious smarts the deeper you look. [B]