BERLIN 2002: Everything But the Kitchen Sink; Yukisada's Ambitious "Go"
by Peter Brunette
(indieWIRE/02.15.02) -- Japanese director Isao Yukisada's "Go," shown last night in the Panorama section at the Berlin Film Festival, is hugely uneven, and yet often brilliantly inspired. Concerning as it does the pressing subject of ethnic discrimination against Koreans living in Japan, it's a film you want to like. But its familiar themes of identity, generational conflict, and what it means to be young and misunderstood are never handled in as fresh and original a manner as one might prefer. Also, the first half of the movie is so overly caffeinated -- undoubtedly the baneful influence of such films as "Trainspotting" and "Run, Lola, Run" -- that its reversion to a much statelier, even somnolent pace in the second half may threaten viewers with withdrawal pangs. Still, the 33-year-old Yukisada has got oodles of raw talent and he's definitely someone to watch.
"Go," which won the international critics' prize at last month's Palm Springs Film Festival, tells the first-person story of Sugihara (Yusuke Kubosuka), a troubled youth who was born in Japan to Korean parents. After tiring of the mundane brutality and rigid ideology of the Korean junior high school he attends, he decides to switch to a regular Japanese high school to continue his education. His father, a former boxer, has trained him to fight since he was a boy, and this skill proves to be crucial to his health when the Japanese kids gang up on him in his new school. This aspect of the story, for better or worse (mostly worse), allows director Yukisada to indulge in an orgy of trendy violence that will seriously put off more sensitive souls.
At a fancy party thrown by his one Japanese friend, who's the son of a yakuza gangster, Sugihara meets a gorgeous Japanese girl, Sakurai (Kou Shibasaki) with whom he falls in love. Fatefully, he decides to keep his ethnic heritage secret from her. Then his Korean friend Jong Il (a reference to the North Korean dictator, one of the host of inside jokes the film flashes), a sensitive intellectual sort (played by Takahito Hosoyama) comes to a bad end, and Sugihara's life is thrown into crisis on multiple fronts.
There is, perhaps, one cinematic trick that Yukisada does not use in this film, but I couldn't find it. It's all there: jump cuts, slow motion, fast motion, erratic motion, pounding soundtrack, black and white freeze-frames, all in the interest of overwhelming the viewer's sensorium. And that's just in the opening credits. Eventually, however, he's forced to tell a story and develop well-rounded, interesting characters who have something to teach us, or some way to move us, and that's where the trouble begins.
Yukisada's biggest problem is that he generates vastly different levels of emotional intensity from scene to scene. A wordless, soundless scene in which Sukurai has decided to offer her virginity to Sugihara, choreographed with a knockout musical score, is supremely delicate, while the scene that follows immediately, a stagy encounter with a Japanese policeman meant to convey some serious things, is utterly slack.
The great strength of "Go" is the almost nonstop wit of its acerbic script, in which Sugihara comments ironically, in voice-over, on all the absurdity that surrounds him: as when his parents renounce their North Korean citizenship, becoming South Koreans, in order to go on a vacation to Hawaii. (His first meeting with his girlfriend's Japanese, Puccini-loving family is also especially strong.) And, like every self-respecting disaffected youth, he scoffs at the bloated catchwords like "revolution" that are pounded into him in the Korean school, the source of the film's richest and most bitter humor. Yukisada also shows a delightful taste for the absurd, as when Sugihara's boxer father, standing in a drenching rain, suddenly belts out a song in unrecognizable Spanish, claiming that he always wanted to be Spanish when he was younger. At too many places, however, the script is jammed with Western popular culture references to figures like Brad Pitt and Jean-Claude Van Damme that, in this exotic Eastern context, will draw superficial laughs from Western audiences. It's the verbal equivalent of all the berserk camera work that chokes the early part of the film.
Still, better too much ambition than not enough; in fact better too much everything than not enough anything. What's certain is that we'll be hearing lots more about Mr. Yukisada in the future.