TORONTO 2001 REVIEW: Pop Goes the Culture; Japan's "All About Lily Chou Chou"
by Peter Brunette
(indieWIRE/09.08.01) -- Shunji Iwai's "All About Lily Chou Chou" is not easy to like. In the best tradition of the challenging art film, it's too long at 146 minutes, and it goes without saying that the plot is murky at best (I didn't understand all the character relationships, frankly, until I read the press kit after the screening). Still, despite a comprehensible human impulse to bolt, there's something --many things, actually -- that keeps you in your seat, and by the end, you're glad you stuck it out.
For one thing, there's the powerful sense that you're watching something deeply authentic here. Set in Japan, the story takes place over two years, 1999 to 2001, and centers around the lives of several middle-school students as they negotiate the bullying and taunts of their classmates, and, as a respite, seek alternative, virtual sites of happiness and belonging, mostly through music and an Internet chat room devoted to the legendary rockstar Lily Chou Chou.
Though the film is ensconced firmly in that familiar cinematic genre, the travails of alienated youth, its largest implications concern the struggle of Japanese society to hang on to ancient cultural traditions (which appear at random moments throughout) in the age of an ubiquitous and leveling pop culture. The benighted parents and the sympathetic young teachers, needless to say, haven't a clue. On a more universal level, the film is about the casual and surprisingly violent cruelty that kids can inflict on each other, and some of the scenes -- rapes, forced prostitution, and crude physical intimidation -- are difficult to watch and yet riveting at the same time. An adult character at one point suggests that the real truth of the world of nature is that it's a "hell on earth," full of unredeemed viciousness, and his theory is well borne out by the relentless struggle of both the boys and the girls for domination over the weak. The coming-of-age aspects of the children's interplay (the boys' faux-macho talk about sex, for example) are also well observed, but it must be admitted, less than wholly fresh.
On a formal level, Iwai shows himself to be a precise master of sound and light. The self-conscious, bright, and mobile lighting of night-scenes never lets us forget the director's presence, and Iwai is capable of surprising us again and again with the sudden beauty of his cinematography. The hyper-saturated color of the visit of some of the kids to Okinawa on holiday -- a treat, even if it does last too long -- is strikingly similar to Godard's use of it in his new film "L'Eloge de l'amour." Iwai is also a master of the musical score, as Debussy is alternated with Lily Chou Chou in such a precisely orchestrated way that it almost feels like another track of dialogue, and carries as much thematic meaning as anything else in the film.
Iwai is also good at the telling gesture, as when a female student, forced into soft-core prostitution by the class bully, continually strikes her tormentor's lackey, the manager of Chou Chou's website and putative protagonist of the film. The director's restrained use of slow motion at this point -- and only at this point -- is exactly correct, and moving. Over and over again during these moments, you feel as though you've been quietly walloped by something indescribable, something that resembles aesthetic truth.
What weakens the film is perhaps that which is most thoroughly authentic about it. "All About Lily Chou Chou" is filled to the brim with Internet typing, which is bad enough, but having to listen to 14-year-olds opine over the meaning of the universe for several hours is a tough row to hoe. Yes, I know all too well that this is the way people, especially perhaps teenage people, express themselves on the Web, but I don't want to be forced to listen in. I think Iwai was aiming for a poetic effect here, but all too often it comes off merely as jejune posturing. Similarly the endless string of hand-held shots that seemingly document every second of their lives becomes trying when they lack a point.
Lots does happen, finally, in the last forty-five minutes, suicides, murders, and the like, and the film does ultimately achieve a definite power that, if not overwhelming, retrospectively clarifies the themes that have been developing ever so subtly. Iwai's obviously a director to watch, and it's a hopeful sign that his film's been chosen for the New York Film Festival, as well.
[Peter Brunette contributes regularly to the Boston Globe and has written several books on film history and theory.]