With digital quickly overtaking 35mm film as the dominant acquisition and distribution format for major motion pictures, it’s no surprise that filmmakers would be moved to reminisce about the magic of film. Martin Scorsese dipped his foot in both pools with his digitally-shot 3D film Hugo, which showcased the artistry of early film pioneer George Melies. And Holy Motors, from French director Leos Carax, touched on the emotion and communal experience of cinema among a plethora of other themes. So it seems only natural that Sion Sono‘s latest film, Why Don’t You Play in Hell?, unfolds like a love letter to the format with which we all first fell in love.
The Fuck Bombers are the best damn cinema club in all of Japan and they are going to make a great movie…one day. Lead by the enthusiastic director Hirata, the Fuck Bombers make their own movies on 8mm. Tanigawa does the best handheld shots while Miki is the best at dolly shots accomplished by wearing roller skates. But the crew finds their final puzzle piece when a fight breaks out near their film shoot one day and they meet Sasaki, who Hirata is sure will be the next great action star.
At the same time, a yakuza feud spills into the urban sprawl when members of the Kitagawa clan attack yakuza boss Taizo Muto’s family in their home. Unfortuantely for them, Muto’s wife Shizue was the only one home and she dispatched her would-be attackers with vengeance. The police deem her tactics too brutal for self-defense and send her to prison for 10 years. Muto’s daughter Mitsuko had just aired a catchy commercial for toothpaste and Shizue’s most fervent wish is to see her daughter become a film actress and watch a movie starring her daughter upon release.
Cut to ten years later and Muto is struggling to control the rebellious Mitsuko and, despite his wife’s release a mere 10 days away, he still can’t find a movie for Mitsuko to act in. Things haven’t been great for the Fuck Bombers either. While Hirata has been keeping spirits high, they haven’t filmed anything new in years and the last thing they did was just a trailer for a film pitch. Sasaki finally gets fed up with the group and leaves. But when coincidence brings Muto’s need for a film together with Hirata’s passion for filmmaking, everyone gets what they want.
Sono is playing in a highly stylized sandbox with this film. Snap zooms, slide and zoom transitions, overhead pans, and through-wall dolly shots combine to form the chaotic world. Over the top production design like a literal ocean of blood in the living room where Shizue dispatched the yakuza gives the film a sense of being distanced from reality. It’s not so far as to be like a cartoon, but it’s enough to remind you that it’s a movie and a big crazy one at that, celebrating the silliness and ridiculous nature of big budget Hollywood films.
While the setup is solid, the film’s lengthy climax is the focal point of the film. It blurs the lines between reality and film with a film within a film as well as a “real” fight between the feuding yakuza clans. Sono makes no move to hide his love for Taratino’s Kill Bill, referencing it repeatedly, visually, stylistically and even musically, using similar sound cues and throwing plenty of severed limbs in the air while spraying the walls with blood. There’s a beautiful symmetry in a Japanese filmmaker aping an American film, whose director was himself paying homage to Japanese films. And while there are plenty of other film references, perhaps most notably Bruce Lee’s Game of Death, Kill Bill is the well that Sono keeps returning to throughout the film.
Big, loud and bold, Why Don’t You Play in Hell? is Sono reminding himself and his audience why we all fell in love with movies in the first place. We kept coming back because the cinema was a place where we all fit in, where we could laugh and clap and cry together, taking comfort in the communal experience. Film was a refuge from the outside world, a portal to other places and times and a release for our emotions. With filmmakers like Sion Sono continuing to make movies like this one, hopefully the cinema can be all that and more for years to come.
The Upside: A stylistic rollercoaster ride that provides plenty of action and entertainment.
The Downside: A little convoluted in the third act.
On the Side: Jun Kunimura, who plays Muto in this film, also appeared as Boss Tanaka in Kill Bill, Volume 1.