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Ulises [Celluloid 07.03.08] movie review drama

Year: 2007
Release date: Unknown
Director: Ryo Nakajima
Writer: Ryo Nakajima
Trailer: link
Review by: Ulises Silva
Rating: 8 out of 10

The Bottom Line: A provocative and introspective analysis of teen angst gone amuck, but definitely an experimental film that won’t necessarily entertain or engage everyone.

Nakajima Ryo’s debut film, This World Of Ours, is a tough movie to watch, and an even tougher film to critique. Tough to watch because of its slow-moving story of teen/young adult nihilism. Tough to review because, while only marginally entertaining, the film is a provocative exploration of personal subjectivity, social expectations, and rebellion.

The story centers around three youngsters, Hiroki, Ryo, and Ami. Hiroki and Ryo start off as friends in high school who pass their time mercilessly bullying a hapless classmate, Mitarai. Ami is the trickster, a girl who regularly flirts with suicide, and who seems to exist between worlds without becoming part of them. So much so, she witnesses the bullying and encourages it because she tells Ryo that she hates Mitarai. But then she turns the other way, encourages Mitarai to kill his tormenters, and provides a kitchen knife with which to commit the deed. Mitarai tries to stab Ryo and fails, but his aided and abetted act of rebellion effects change; Ryo and Hiroki never bother him again.

It’s darkly ironic that the story begins with this moment of effected change, because the rest of the narrative is essentially about the powerlessness to change anything. Transitioning into young adulthood, Hiroki and Ryo face the expectations of Japanese society with contempt and rebellion. They’re expected to pass their exams, go to college, and get good jobs. But wage-slavery isn’t for them, and they’d rather leave it all to the rest of the drones around them. They want to start a revolution, and they want to change things. Unfortunately, they don’t demonstrate any real understanding of what that change would be. Change for the sake of change seems to be their only real ideal.

And so, their lives deteriorate into aimlessness. For Ryo, life becomes all about hiding out and sulking in the school’s bathroom all day, kicking around toilet paper, playing with his butterfly knife. For Hiroki, it’s about hanging out and drinking with college-aged friends. This becomes their revolution, a sort of aimless aimlessness that achieves nothing, not even the satisfaction of defying society’s expectations.

But even aimlessness leads somewhere. When Hiroki’s friends gang-rape a girl, he is the last, and most reluctant participant. He rapes but is simultaneously being emotionally raped by both his buddies and his own pathetic weakness. They assure him that, through rape, they hold the power. But he is rendered impotent by the experience. It’s fitting that Beethoven’s Ode to Joy plays during the rape scene; it’s a reverential nod to A Clockwork Orange, whose movie poster peers prominently through the mise-en-scene, and an incongruous reflection of how disempowering this moment of empowerment actually is.

For Ryo, the moment of trauma is being confronted in his bathroom sanctuary by his teacher, Iwayama. Iwayama, in a fumbling, physical scene that leaves plenty to the imagination, tells Ryo that his only option is to embrace his weakness and his powerlessness. But the teacher’s berating words of pseudo-advice ring painfully true: Ryo and Ami catch him in the subway, secretly videotaping women’s panties. And so, they confront him and try to turn the tables on him, but Iwayama assures Ryo that he really is no different than him. Iwayama is Ryo as an adult, his own pointless, hypocritical life borne from the same life of petty bullying and aimlessness. When Ryo’s bloody response finally comes, you know a monster has been unleashed.

These are the two divergent paths Hiroki and Ryo take. For Hiroki, his moment of trauma brings to focus a startling revelation: normalcy isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Having a job isn’t a bad thing. Unfortunately, the police are after him and his buddies for raping the girl, and so he comes face to face with the painful realization that normalcy is now impossible. With its loss comes a full descent into despair. He ponders endlessly on whether to turn himself in and salvage some semblance of future normalcy, or simply submit to nihilist aimlessness. The same kind advocated by one of his buddies, a homeless man with delusions of destroying the world and remaking it in his own twisted image. “Your pride and your hopes, just let them go,” he tells Hiroki, and this is pretty much the only ideal the characters can seem to understand.

For Ryo, his moment of trauma brings to focus an equally startling revelation: destruction can effect change. It’s why he builds a bomb and ponders incessantly over where to plant it, and why he kills not only his teacher but his parents. But does anything change? Pervert teachers are replaced. Buildings are rebuilt. And so, he sets about to plot his own version of a Japanese 9/11, setting his sights on a government building where his homemade bomb can effect the biggest change of all.

Through all this, Ami is the mediator, the trickster figure who changes shapes so that she can take part in different worlds without becoming a part of them. She is the girl in the school uniform, encouraging Ryo to place his bomb in the middle of a crowded intersection of Tokyoites. She is the hipster in J-popster fashion who hangs with Hiroki and his posse, not taking part in the rape, but taking part in the initial drinking binge that gets the victim drunk. She dangles between life and death—she’s withdrawn from life, but she’s withdrawn from death as well because of her frequent but casual flirtations with suicide. Ami is our guide, the one who allows us to venture into both Ryo and Hiroki’s worlds by enabling their respective transgressions without becoming a part of them. And it’s through her that the film seems to make its most emphatic point of all: when you have nowhere left to go in the world, what will you do then? Do you succumb to despair? Do you embrace self-destruction? Or do you simply exist in a perpetual state of flux and observation, taking in the sights of a world gone mad without taking part in it?

The film, shot almost entirely with handheld cameras, offers slanting, fast-zooming, jittery perspectives. This, along with its drab color palette, gives the narrative a home-movie feel that’s part confession, part documentary, part cry for help. Though the film is inspired by such movies as A Clockwork Orange, the narrative pace is certainly more intimate than Kubrick’s, inviting you to voyeuristically and vicariously partake in the characters’ respective self-destruction. Hiroki’s descent into despair is particularly effective; after an hour of hearing him and his buddies decry normalcy, it’s sobering to watch him realize just how precious that normalcy actually is once it’s taken from him.

But like I said, this was a hard film to watch. Not only because of the unrelenting somberness of its philosophical musings on social norms and expectations, but because none of the characters really seem to get it. Ryo is engulfed in self-destruction; Ami is engulfed in self-entrapment; and Hiroki, who comes closest to recognizing that his angst is misbegotten, still falls short of it. And so, the movie becomes a drawn-out introspection that’s provocative and intriguing, but ultimately depressing. It’s a lyrical, surreal, poetic film, one that paints a portrait of Japanese teen angst in dark, brooding strokes, with characters that are fascinating, but hardly likeable.

And so, this film proved even more difficult to review. Because the film is an exercise in introspective discourse, and Nakajima has certainly crafted a visually and lyrically stunning freshman effort. There’s no denying that this is a multi-layered film steeped in nuance and subtext, with narrative substance and superb acting that more than make up for the film’s limited budget and resources. But it’s a slow film, a depressing film, and ultimately an experimental film that doesn’t always succeed in tying its three disjointed narratives together. So it’s not a film for everyone, and I’m rating it on its cinematic and narrative merits, not on its entertainment value, which is little. But like A Clockwork Orange, it’s a film that deserves a look, and maybe a repeat viewing, because it paints a dire but not-altogether-implausible picture of teen angst run amuck. And as such, it invites discussion, thought, and maybe just a bit of self-examination.

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