The camera hovers beneath the water of a toilet in which two recently curled out hot ones are still floating. Through the, ahh, murk, we watch as a man is quickly dispatched by a Yakuza killer for hire.
Nice one. Welcome to the maniacal world of Miike, to whom the phrase ‘inventive camera angles’ barely does any kind of justice. And let’s not get started on weird plot twists and oddball scenarios.
OK, let’s. We get murderous games of ping pong, cocaine teeth-brushing, vertically challenged chaps and CGI created psychotic chicken fights that brutally steal from The Matrix. You really have to see it to believe it.
Miike is one of the most prolific auteur’s on the planet, churning out musicals, serious, wistful films, J-Horror and, in films like this and Gozu, a kind of gangster film that makes Tarantino, to whom he is often compared, look like a lame ass director of a bad CSI episode.
In these films Miike’s daft approach to narrative and framing lead to a constant case of disconnect. Scenes throw you and deliberately interrupt the flow of the narrative. The end point of this is to make you wonder whether Miike is being too smart for his own good. They tend to act as a kind of ‘look at me’ act, a means of focusing on the technique of the film rather than the action: all of which might be very Brechtian and intriguing, but can lead to the viewer focusing on the director’s intentions, rather than a suspension of disbelief and investment in the characters.
And there are a helluva lot of characters in City of Lost Souls. Too many perhaps, as many of them seem to appear and disappear for no reason. Such as the psycho chicken owner who serves a brief kind of manic slapstick comedic relief but does nothing to further the story.
Now this may seem like an endless serve of criticism for Miike, but it is fair to say that for everyone who finds Miike frustrating for these very reasons, there are plenty of others who find his work playful and irreverent.
For my money, City of Lost Souls performs the function of a fine “what the …” film, nowhere near as charmingly bizarre as Gozu, but one with its own charms. Not the least of which is Miike’s fantasy of a Tokyo-Brazilian enclave, with dancing in the streets and low grade pirate TV – a kind of sunny appropriation of South American culture and film tropes that contrasts with the underground cave sparsity and pseudo sophistication of the world inhabited by Kei’s Triad boyfriend. Indeed much of the film contrasts Mario’s world – outdoors, wide open, natural stock – with the claustrophobic, internal world of the Yakuza and Triads, full of smoky, tiny rooms, dark alleyways and, well, toilet cubicles. It is a Japan where language – Chinese, Japanese and Brazilian – is fluid and interchangeable.
Equally fascinating is the ‘performance’ by Japanese-Brazilian Teah as Mario – a lean, crazed presence who, while almost invincible, somehow radiates an ounce or two of vulnerability. The romance between Mario and Kei is barely registered, though, which doesn’t create a lot of investment in their fates beyond seeing Mario kick some serious butt and keep on keeping on.
Miike, like Tarantino, also endlessly refers to other films – Sergio Leone for starters – even right down to the final scene which gives a big nod to a certain Michael Caine film (to say more would be to give too much away). It’s exhausting fun picking up on the references and riding the endlessly changing film stock, framing, lighting, and styles that Miike throws at the audience.
City of Lost Souls is a typical Miike sensual assault. Not great shakes, but a cool addition to a body of work of a director with one of the most unique visions on the cinematic planet.