Movie Review, Shunji Iwai, Silver Moon in Full Bloom

All About Lily Chou-Chou (2001) by Shunji Iwai

Original Name: Riri Shushu no subete

Director:  Shunji Iwai

Debut at: Oct 2001 (146 min)

Country: Japan (Japanese)

IMDB Link:

“In Okinawan we say people have seven lives, you’ve lost tow, so you’ve got five left”. That casual remark clocks at an hour mark into the film and serves as a catalyst for the rest of the film. I can see why people often regard All about Lily Chou-Chou as Iwai’s definitive work. It’s far from what I thought it would be (where is… Lily Chou-Chou? This film is about her, right?), but it’s a natural progression from the man whose works have always centred around adolescence and the cyber-communication (if you count exchanging letters as one). I said in the review of his epic Swallowtail Butterfly that it’s hard to dig into his themes and it certainly rings true here. On a narrative sides, it’s murky. It introduces characters without much context and leaves them just as fast, it tells the story in the middle section and traces back and then forward, intercut by hundreds insert screens of text or Lily Chou-Chou music. It’s rapid not only in term of plot or characters but also in its handheld camera and quick editing. It runs for too long and communicates so little (or is it a little bit too much?). It shifts perspectives and tones at a drop of a hat, yet despite all that there’s an authentic emotional core that is both raw, urging and universal and there’s many moments that leave a lasting impact.

The film details a group of high school students fumble through lives, enduring some of the nastiest taste of growing up: shoplift, bully, forced prostitution, rape, assault… this film has it all, while at the same time some of them draw into internet-based worshiping of the (fictional) idol Lily Chou-Chou, whom they argue that her music brings out the “Ether”. The film also traces the forming and the falling-apart relationship of Yuichi and Hoshimi, in which the latter later transforms into a heartless bully. It’s a strength, as well as the weakness in Iwai’s storytelling style, that we get many hints from him why his characters turn out the way they are, but the film never makes it clear, or something doesn’t even care, to show us that deeper side. And since we only have one or two lines, or sometimes a single image where characters let out their inner side (before completely disappear again), this undoubtedly leaves confusion to the audience, and worse, put them off on caring about these characters.

With that said, Iwai’s extremely adept at using sound and light to provoke and transfer the character’s feeling. Scenes in his movies aren’t connected by traditional narrative sense, but by the use of music. He and his frequent collaborator Kobayashi and the then-unknown Salyu as vocalist created strong music (in fact, they did release an album a week after the film’s release), especially the “Arabesque” song that link this pop sensation with Debussy classic. His trademark use of highly-saturated sequences, his slow-motion and his uses of light in the nighttime are all there, to good effects. Visually, except from the “Vacation” and the “rape” sequence in which it uses a regular Handicam, the film is shot in high-definition video, creates some of his most stunning sequences to date (the opening scene come to mind). Many of its plot, especially from the first half do need some trimming, while the others need more screen time.

But meandering as the plot goes, its raw teen-angst, teen obsession over the pop-culture, and teen-domination spear right through the heart of the film. The bully part would never hit as hard if not for the first hour where it establishes the fact that Hoshino was just a normal kid. The adults are there but they hardly notice all the issues their kids endure. At that, even more than Yuichi, the character whose role that resonate the most on that end is Shiori (Yu Aoi in her stunning debut. The only young actor discovered by Iwai who becoming a acting star status). Forced by Hoshino to prostitution with older men, she drifts through and bares with it. Her scenes where she slashes out to Yuichi, or later when she eats with him, provide an intimate feeling that the rest of the film can’t never top again. On the other spectrum, Yoko (played by Ayumi Ito after the helm of Swallowtail Butterfly) rarely connects to the film. While she’s undoubtedly a victim of the class bully, she isn’t directly involved Lily Chou-Chou music like the rest of the cast, and she rarely interacts to other cast, which is a bit of a wasted, considering how physically demanding Ayumi Ito had gone through in this film (practicing endless hours for piano, that mentally demanding of the rape-scene, and she shaved her head for this film).

In all, All About Lily Chou-Chou offers a grim and haunting look at adolescence and many ugly aspects of it. It’s not a film that intends to shock you, or a criticism at the Japanese youth society. All it does, most of the time unconventionally, is demand audience to engage, to feel. If you’re in its wavelength you will get swept away by the its waves of raw emotion. People often regard this movie as “depressing”, but to borrow Roger Ebert’s words (amusingly he didn’t like this movie), “no great films are depressing [but all bad ones are], they inspire.”

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