Fantasia International Film Festival 2014 runs July 17 to August 6. Follow all of our coverage here.
Naoto Tamura (Yuki Yamada) is a bit of a dick. He’s obnoxious and indifferent to everyone around him including his hard-working mother, but he takes his attitude one step too far when he lashes out at her. While on his own a short while later he receives a package with a novel titled “Live” in it timed to a phone call and a video. His mother has been abducted, and she’ll be killed unless Naoto participates in and wins the caller’s elaborate “death triathlon.”
He sets off to the first location only to discover that he’s not alone. A dozen other people, each frantic and glued to their cell phones, are also in the race. Other players lessen Naoto’s odds of winning, but so do the various obstacles put in their place including, but not limited to, a pair of bikini-clad crossbow-wielding women on roller skates.
You probably thought Live was looking like a serious movie didn’t you.
Naoto and the other players realize this is a winner take all situation with the lives of loved ones at stake, and they’re soon at each other’s throats hoping to increase their chances of coming in first place. He strikes up a fragile alliance with a smart and cautious girl named Rumi (Ito Ono) and the always smiling Shinsuke (Yuki Morinaga), and working together they attempt to survive the atrocities heading their way.
Director Noboro Iguchi made a big splash with 2008’s The Machine Girl, but most of his output since then has ended up as forgettable as his output was in the twenty years prior. (RoboGeisha and Dead Sushi are fun exceptions.) Like his countryman Takashi Miike he appears to be a quantity-over-quality kind of filmmaker, but unlike Miike he rarely attempts to tread in serious waters. He likes bouncing boobies just too damn much.
Live teases a more mature Iguchi in its opening act as Naoto’s issues and behavior are treated with the somber eye they deserve, but the sincere thriller-tinged drama only lasts long enough for the players to find themselves in a locker room where they’re expected to change into yellow runner outfits. Almost immediately little white panties and jiggling breasts are filling the screen, and while they don’t stay long both find ways to return throughout the rest of the film.
It’s difficult to criticize such well-framed visuals, but they along with some other goofy moments fail to mesh with the story’s darker and more sinister elements. The threat of murder is very real for the contestants, and Naoto and others respond to the stress and results in serious and grim fashion. But then we get another cleavage zoom or a playful piece of the score and the tone just shatters.
Iguchi’s script, adapted from Yûsuke Yamada’s novel, is similarly trapped with its dual levels of quality. The main story is an engaging riff on the Battle Royale formula with players competing against the clock and each other (Live even borrows the onscreen death tally from that film), and it works while doling out the mystery and pausing only long enough for an action sequence. But its pauses for pure silliness combined with a story that struggles to kind find a satisfying resolution for its characters are constantly at odds with the legitimate thrills.
The unfortunate aspect of all this is that the film has a lot of fun to offer. There are some smile-inducing visual gags and delightfully gory moments, but there are also plenty of groaners and examples of terrible CGI. Naoto shows growth through the pain of the game, but like Iguchi’s own growth as a filmmaker they’re tempered by inconsistent execution.
The parts that work show Iguchi is capable of being more than a T&A man, and with a much tighter script he may yet have a truly fantastic film in him. (Although even if he was remaking Citizen Kane he’d probably find a way to turn Rosebud into a nipple.) As it stands this is a mixed bag – it’s good fun and it’s too silly, it’s engaging and it’s ridiculous – but it’s still a marked improvement over much of his recent fare that depended almost entirely on bad CGI and fart jokes.
The Upside: Engagingly twisted plot; shows some filmmaking maturity from Noboru Iguchi; action sequences well staged; a Megaforce reference
The Downside: Not all that well thought out; some dumb moments; plot explanation is quite silly; tonally imbalanced at times; digital effects; never kill the sexy naked girl first
On the Side: Yûsuke Yamada has a second adaptation of his work playing Fantasia Fest this year with Puzzle.