September 24, 2002
Drifting despairingly through a dissolute Japan with nothing to hang on to but the ethereal strains of a wan pop singer, the adolescent main character in Shunji Iwai's All About Lily Chou-Chou often confronts full-on a world filled with all-too-sorrowful reality. The universe that he inhabits is sometimes brutal and offers little emotional connection for the lost young man; it's only through the medium of cyberspace or music that he's able to find any sort of temporary solace. This kind of paralyzing melancholy seems to affect most of the teenagers who are shown here by the filmmaker as a contemporary lost generation of sorts; an aimless, sometimes cruel youth that seek to lose themselves in casual meanness, petty crime or computer culture, in the main without much success.
While the film has a clunky moment or two that blemishes its otherwise capable execution, these slight flaws fortunately don't overtly diminish the impact of this stylish and charged piece of cinema. The tale is little more than the story of Yuichi Hasumi (played by Hayato Ichihara), who is an obsessed fan of a local pop chanteuse. He runs a Web site devoted to the star where fans meet to discuss the singer and her affective work, and where it seems sometimes the emotional connections so lacking in everyday life are intermittently made. The plot rambles from there, following the adolescent through his turbulent world, where happiness is fleeting and disconnection rules the day.
Shunji Iwai uses a number of stylistic devices to set the emotional tone of his film, chief among them being the extensive use of typed chat-room conversations appearing on screen with their accompanying clacking of keys. At first this seems to be a bit artificial, - and, in fact, is likely to be intended as such - but given the subject matter of the film it eventually appears a natural outcome of the character's life on-screen. The director, a veteran of music videos, is also not shy about using genre trickeries culled from that medium to underline the modern feel of his piece, and for additional effect other portions of the film are shot in shaky handheld video. To the filmmaker's credit, these stylistic options seem to be rarely chosen for their own sake; instead, they nearly always seem to connect with what is happening to the characters and to reflect the jagged technological and emotional landscape in which they live.
The engaging and riveting subtlety of parts of All About Lily Chou-Chou, the brilliance of its cinematography, a sometimes shimmering sadness and the steady work of its mostly adolescent cast are undoubtedly the film's main strengths. Less successful overall is the occasionally contrived nature of the story, as its 146-minute length includes a couple of stumbling parts where the message becomes heavy-handed and too overbearing. This is a bit odd given the director's finer touch in handling most of the scenes, but gladly these clumsier moments don't break the delicate cinematic spell woven during much of the movie for long. For the most part, the work achieves a depth of feeling and disassociation that displays perfectly the difficulties of the discordant world that these wayward characters find themselves ensconced within; a jarring and unsettling place that perhaps can only be drowned out temporarily by the sweeping music of a nebulous icon of fame.
This latest film from Shunji Iwai tackles some rough territory that can only be called slightly unpleasant, and while there are certainly some flaws in its execution, in the main the work is a clever and powerful exposition on the present state of Japan's youth. Using modern stylistic means, the director artfully conveys the vagaries of a techno-futurist society clashing with an age-old traditional culture and exposes the hidden fissures that run through the broken territory of today's Japan. Aimless and vulnerable, the young people here are seemingly casting about in search of something that appears forever out of reach; this is a sullen place wherein a 15-year-old is already well capable of growing nostalgic for the happier past experiences of a youthful summer vacation. In the hands of a less talented director, this tale could have easily veered off into simplistic patronizing or stylistic excess, but the generally careful handling of the material results in a modern myth that imparts its sometimes bleak view without being inherently off-putting. The filmmaker's skill in pulling off this none-too-easy task should be considered impressive, enough so that the movie's occasional imperfections are easily ignored when judging the piece as a whole. All About Lily Chou-Chou is, then, ultimately both a film that can be seen as a somewhat grim success for its maker as well as one indicating that an eye should be kept open for future works from this talented helmsman. So though his characters may see no good prospects for the years to come, for audiences of this director's films, at least, it appears that there is real reason for hope.