First Love (Takashi Miike, 2019)

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Every time I watch a Takashi Miike movie, I end up asking myself why I ever watch movies that aren’t Takashi Miike movies. That’s certainly the case with First Love, his latest, which premiered at Cannes earlier this year and opens next week (October 4) at the Uptown. It’s a familiar story, a one crazy night gangster movie mixed with just enough romance and humor to confound the tonal consistency police. But while the plot evokes faint memories of Johnnie To’s The Odd One Dies or Derek Yee’s One Night in Mongkok or Soi Cheang’s Love Battlefield, really it’s all Miike, suffused with his inimitable blend of pitch-black humor, razor-sharp filmmaking, and a surprising undercurrent of hope amid all the absurdist bloodshed and horror of a world that has almost completely lost its mooring.

A young boxer who has been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor stumbles into a scheme wherein a low-level yakuza and a crooked cop are conspiring to steal a bag of drugs from the yakuza, while framing a prostitute and a Chinese Triad syndicate for the crime. The hope is to incite a gang war and have all the bad guys kill each other off, while the schemers get away with the drugs and can then take over. But the prostitute, a young drug addict who suffers from hallucinations, caused by years of abuse by her father and her handlers, runs away from the cop at a pivotal moment, and thinking she needs rescuing, the boxer clocks the cop. The young people run away and the scheme falls apart, thanks as well to a pair of nigh-indestructible women, one the girlfriend of the guy who the drugs are stolen from, the other a Chinese gangster lamenting the sad state of honor among today’s yakuza men. A host of other memorable baddies abound, including an old school yakuza who is fresh out of prison and terribly annoyed by everyone around him, and a one-armed Chinese gangster who has no lines but follows along the whole way, waiting for his opportunity to take revenge on the man who maimed him.

Miike unfolds the convoluted plot with expert precision, such that it’s pretty much always clear exactly who is double-crossing who, and why. And those double-crosses play out in and escalating series of violent encounters, as funny as they are original. I wouldn’t dare spoil any of the surprises the movie has in store, but I want to single out Miike’s editing in particular, cutting on motion with as much attention to the flow of action as, say, Steven Spielberg, but with a sublime sense of humor, as when a punch in the boxing ring becomes a beheading stroke of a katana in a dark alley. First Love is filled with these little touches. One imagines Miike chuckling away as he finds ever more demented ways to depict violence on-screen. I’ve said before that no one in contemporary cinema has as much fun making movies as Takashi Miike, and First Love is him working with complete freedom within otherwise well-worn genre terrain.

Even the romance is unusual. Given the circumstances, and their various medical and mental conditions, it’d be absurd, something that only happens in the movies, for our two innocents to fall madly in love right away (even with the help of a pop song, as they do in Wong Kar-wai’s As Tears Go By). Instead, the First Love of the title can only grow after the trials of the one crazy night have been put behind them. Not just a lunatic cascade of gangster movie violence, the night instead becomes a stand-in for all the horrible things that have happened to them in their pasts, and only after they survive them and move on to a new day, is a first love even possible. The final shot doesn’t need a pop song, or even a close-up, to be the most hopeful, most romantic image of the movie year.

I should watch more Takashi Miike movies. The Grand Illusion this week is playing three of them, none of which I have seen, Shinjuku Triad SocietyRainy Dog, and Ley Lines. Like First Love, they all involve rivalries between Chinese Triads and Japanese yakuza, such that their grouped together as his “Black Society Trilogy”, though they are apparently unrelated in plot or character. If I was in town next week, that’s where I would be.

Dead or Alive (Takashi Miike, 1999)

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No filmmaker in the world has more fun that Takashi Miike. That’s evident from a late career masterpiece like 2012’s Ace Attorney, or from the last of the prolific director’s films to play here in Seattle, Yakuza Apocalypse. But even going back to 1999’s Dead or Alive, playing one night only Thursday at the Grand Illusion, you find that streak of absurd humor and perversity electrifying even the grimmest of bloody gangster sagas. The movie opens with a music video of destruction, rapidly cutting between locations as nameless gangsters live their good lives (prostitutes and strippers, cocaine and ramen) only to be cut down by a coordinated assault by ruthless assassins. The killers turn out to be a gang of immigrants from Taiwan led by Ryūichi, a pompadoured man in black, who are trying to instigate a gang fight between the local yakuza and Japanese Triads and take control of the heroin importation racket. On their trail is a reasonably honest cop named Jojima, who comes complete with a wife who’s endlessly worried about their ability to pay for a life-saving operation for their sullen teenage daughter. The plot careens wildly from one generic scene to another, enlivened at every turn by Miike’s eye for over-the-top grotesquerie, manic framing, and apocalyptic greens and yellows (not to mention random dudes in giant bird costumes). Sidelong glances at political relevance (a barely attended lecture on the future of communism in the post-Soviet era, the social pressures that allow an underground economy (and thus the gang warfare that goes with it) to flourish) are smash cut with the most appalling violence and cruelty, daring theory to account for our demented world. In the end, even genre itself cannot contain the depravity and contradictions at the heart of the cop/gangster drama, from The Big Heat to Battles without Honor and Humanity, the lunatic cycles of violence escalate beyond all reason, and cop and gangster burning the world and all to red dust.