Judge Adam Arseneau was happy to follow the disposal instructions for this DVD...he threw it in the woods.
Not the National Geographic kind.
It is with some measure of trepidation that I sit myself down to review Wild Life. As a purveyor of Japanese imported films to North America, the hit-to-miss ratio of ArtsMagicDVD has been somewhat abnormal as of late, and I find myself increasingly wary of its product. Plus, having reviewed one of director Shinji Aoyama's films previously—EM Embalming, which I hated—my expectations for Wild Life were, admittedly, rather low.
So how does this offbeat yakuza film fare? Read on…
Facts of the Case
Hiroki Sakai is a nail man. He fixes the tiny little nails in pachinko machines. This is his life. It is dull and boring, but he seems to enjoy it. A retired semi-successful boxer, he enjoys nothing more than coming home and putting together a jigsaw puzzle. He enjoys a close relationship with his boss, who owns the pachinko parlors in the neighborhood, and begins to form one with the man's daughter, who seems to have a crush on him.
But when the local yakuza gang moves in and tries to muscle his boss out of the pachinko business, Hiroki is forced to intervene. And then Hiroki receives a mysterious video tape—which seems to be a recurring motif in Japan these days—depicting an enigmatic sequence of events. Does the tape hold the answer to Hiroki's problems?
I like weird films. I like the films of David Lynch and David Cronenberg. I like Takashi Miike and Kiyoshi Kurosawa. So when I say that Wild Life is weird, please understand my meaning; it isn't weird in a good way. It is weird like your estranged uncle who always does the card tricks in inappropriate places is weird. Or weird like the smell of a rental car, somewhere between motor oil and what inexplicably smells like bananas. Or weird like the idea of your best friend sleeping with your mom. Not the enjoyable kind of weird. Just…weird.
Shinji Aoyama, a Kiyoshi Kurosawa protégé, like his mentor, is a subversive genre filmmaker. It is a particularly dangerous style of filmmaking, and terribly unpredictable. In suck films, the line between brilliance and stupidity is a fine and well-traversed one, and often, what separates a masterpiece from a flop can be as subtle as a spring breeze. Take Wild Life, which has the makings of a straightforward yakuza film, but manages to completely derail every single expectation. But not in the way someone like Seijun Suzuki would, by adding splashes of experimental color or aggressive lighting to his yakuza films, or Takashi Miike, by adding extreme violence and sexual dysfunction. Aoyama manages to make things weird by taking the film, chopping it into a thousand pieces, and gluing the reel back together, seemingly in random order.
I did not like Wild Life, and yet at the same time, I admire the heck out of it. I am envious of the sweeping camera style, the odd deadpan sense of comedy, and the way jokes hang in the air like a flat tire, well past the point where they could ever be constituted funny. I admire the fragmented narrative, the division of the film into four- or five-minute titled segues, each with its own place card. I even admire the total randomness of the script, as if somebody had taken a pair of barber scissors and simply removed entire pages from the draft, with no explanation or rewrite. I admire all these things, and yet, at the same time, I despise them with all my heart.
Except the ending. I liked the ending. Partly because it ended, but partly because it resembles something out of a video game.
This is a tough movie to enjoy. Intellectually, I can appreciate it, but after watching it, I sincerely did not enjoy it. It taxes the patience. It repels understanding, drives away common sense. Part yakuza drama, part deadpan comedy, part romance, it unequivocally fails to achieve any of these goals, settling instead for something in between. As I watched Wild Life, with a growing sense of unease, I realized it seems to be making no sense for the sake of messing with the viewer. Normally, I find this charming, but for some reason, Wild Life rubbed me all kinds of the wrong ways. Even the character development (or, to be more accurate, total absence of) is tenuous in a Jim Jarmusch sort of way, and you have to be in the right kind of mood for that. The film isn't all bad, of course. When the editing works, it works in flashes of incredible brilliance, but much in the same way of playing darts by hurling a box of darts at the board. When a dart sticks, it is an impressive feat; but mostly, it just makes a racket.
ArtsMagicDVD, in all their drunken glory, appeared to have mastered Wild Life from a video source, and a PAL one at that. The transfer is soft, murky, grainy, hazy, and indistinct, and suffers from anti-aliasing and shimmering effects, no doubt battle scars from the amateurish PAL transfer. It is a step up from VHS-level quality…about half an inch up. If you need further proof on the crudeness of the presentation, observe that the aspect ratio, on the packaging, is described as a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. This is a lie. I have no idea what freaky aspect ratio Wild Life is presented in, but if that's 1.85:1, I'll retire my judge robes.
The audio is presented in a Dolby 2.0 and 5.1 surround presentations that both sound reasonable enough, but I found the distribution to the rear channels to be downright erratic. Character voices often appeared out of nowhere in rear channels, causing you to turn your head around, before realizing that, first off, nobody is behind you, and secondly, neither is the character on-screen. Weird. Other than a few odd moments, the audio is entirely serviceable, with reasonable bass response, and a lilting psychedelic score. I caught a few grammatical errors in the subtitles, but nothing too serious.
In terms of extras, Japanese film author Jasper Sharp contributes a commentary track, which is hands and shoulders the best thing going for Wild Life. The track, while academic, is packed with all kinds of information; from the social effects of the Japanese terrorist subway attacks on the psyche of Japanese cinema to personal cast and crew details, it goes into absurd levels of detail on every imaginable subject. It almost—almost—makes this DVD a success. It's that good. Add to this a 20-minute interview with director Shinji Aoyama, a man who created the film himself but, ironically, has less interesting things to say about it than the film critic who had nothing to do with it.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I really wanted to like this film. On paper, it had me written all over it…oddball genre-bending yakuza film, erratic editing, nonsensical plot, and distracted and distant protagonists, all the stuff I normally find enjoyable in a weird film. Why Wild Life failed to connect with me in any way, I have no idea. I feel disappointed that it did not. I admire the idea of such a movie far more than I admired this particular film, but I stop short at flatly rebuking Wild Life, if only because there are people out there who will no doubt connect with it.
I am envious of those people.
Watching Wild Life reminds me of listening to my old Sonic Youth CDs back from high school. Even today, I still admire the heck out of the band, find them creative and daring; but at the end of the day, it simply isn't music I ever want to listen to. Like, ever. While I enjoyed Wild Life more than I enjoyed EM Embalming, this is akin to stating I enjoy psoriasis over leprosy. It is a true statement, but not one that makes any real sense to say aloud.
Whatever credit is due to ArtsMagicDVD for releasing esoteric Asian cinema in North America is immediately overwritten by the egregiously lousy capacity in which they have been going about this task as of late. Except for the nice commentary track, this DVD honks Bobo.
Apparently I dislike the films of Shinji Aoyama. Perhaps I should recluse myself from the stand.
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Scales of Justice
• Interview with Director Shinji Aoyama
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