The following film was screened at the Yonkers Alamo Drafthouse as part of their showcasing some of the films that played at this year’s Fantastic Fest held in Austin, Texas back in September. To describe Why Don’t You Play In Hell? , the Sion Sono directed, Japanese language crowd favorite of this year’s Fantastic Fest, is a tricky thing. Is it a violent yakuza film? A comedic love letter to film-making? A piece about how obsession leads to ruin? All three? None of the above?
Placing the film in some neat little box is impossible. It lives so far outside of the box, half the time you don’t even know what you’re watching, but you’ll be goddamned if you’re going to miss a minute of this wild, frenetic over the top spectacle. The film ends in a 20 minute sword and gun battle soaked in blood and shorn off limbs, but it also features a cute girl singing a maddeningly addictive song about toothpaste. How does one justify the existence of the one with the other? Who knows? Who cares?! But somehow it works like gangbusters and the final product is near or at the top of the list of ‘most enjoyable times at the theater all year’.
The film is a high paced jumble of cuts, tossing the audience into a sea of characters inhabiting a city in Tokyo. They include a pack of wannabe film-makers, led by Hirata, who affectionately call themselves the ‘Fuck Bombers’ , though we’re never quite sure why. A young girl with the aforementioned catchy-as-hell toothpaste commercial jingle, and her father, the head of a yakuza syndicate, another syndicate and even the police officers in charge of cleaning up the whole mess. If you feel disoriented for awhile, don’t worry, the effects will pass and things will start making a shocking amount of sense and you’ll be able to follow along with all of the many wild, wonderful characters before the bitter end. Yes, the movie is subtitled, but it makes more sense than half the English language releases in theaters these days.
“Die for the camera!” Some director, at some point in history, has yelled these words at his or her actors. One would like to think that it’s delivered in jest. Not here. Why Don’t You Play With Hell? is the ultimate directorial trip, not a love letter to the movies so much as it is an enthusiastic blog post to the madmen who direct them. And let’s be honest, you have to be a little mad to want to direct a movie. There are a lot of films, great films even, that look behind the curtain at the directing process: 8 ½ , Day for Night, Living In Oblivion and Fellini never once had a bloody climactic yakuza battle that ended any of his films, so clearly Why Don’t You Play In Hell? > 8 ½ .
This is not meant to be an accurate look at the directing process, at least, I sure hope it isn’t. This is unbounded enthusiasm made manifest, the power of directing with none of the subtlety. Die! Die for me! Hirata is a competent and wildly passionate but unmotivated director, more in love with the idea of being a director than actually directing anything. Tarantino spent years lovingly incorporating Asian film elements. Sono returns the favor. The dialogue, though translated, has that Tarantino pop.
The fight music is eerily similar to a karaoke version of ‘ Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood ’ from Kill Bill and one of the characters even dresses up in Bruce Lee’s yellow and black jumpsuit, which Tarantino would later reintroduce in KB, as well. Few films in the years following Pulp Fiction (and there are many) successfully aped QT’s style and made it work. Why Don’t You Play In Hell? is one of the few, and certainly the best.
I have absolutely no idea how this movie came to be. Sono is some kind of madman (hey, he’s a director after all). It pokes fun at gangster films, filmmakers, pop princesses, tough guys and wimpy dudes alike. It’s wonderful satire tossed into a blender and spit out and my god, it is tasty. I have not seen so inventive, so interesting, so unpredictable a film as this in I don’t even know how long. Even with a large amount of on-screen violence, there’s hardly a serious bone in its body. Yet the characters are so well realized, so likeable, that you’re sad to see them go at the end and the performances are strong enough that in a movie with such manic frenzy, there’s some genuine emotion to be had underneath the blood and satire.
Why Don’t You Play In Hell? was scooped up by Drafthouse Films and will be released in 2014 in theaters and VOD. If you love making movies, you’ll love it. If you love movies, you’ll love it. Hell, if you just like bizarre, out there, totally well made and well told stories, then have I got a ticket for you.