Saturday, 2 May 2009

Visitor Q

Beginning with a vague preamble on the use of digital video in achieving that contrast between the abstract and the real...

One of the most interesting developments to occur in contemporary cinema over the course of the last ten years has been the increase in availability of digital filmmaking technology and the obvious benefit that this has offered to filmmakers, not least in terms of reducing budgets and production schedules, but in looking at the world from a new perspective. From Lars von Trier's The Idiots (Idioterne, 1998) to David Lynch's Inland Empire (2006), the look and more importantly the feel of digital photography has further obscured the recognisable line between drama (i.e. artifice: the filming of a performance within a carefully constructed frame) and reality. The "look", as it were, is closer to a perceived realism as presented by that of reality television, docudrama or a fly on the wall; the sense that we are seeing something closer to reality because the sparseness of its images, the relaxed nature of its performances and the awkward passages usually removed or tightened by the editing process remind us of the unrehearsed spontaneity of everyday life.

The feel of digital cinema (discounting the more pioneering digital work of films like Attack of the Clones (2002) or Zodiac (2007), in which the attempt is to make digital look as glossy and well-defined as 35mm celluloid) is the stuff of wedding videos or the filmed performances of a high school musical. The effect is more recognisable to our own (non-professional?) experiments with filmmaking in the domestic sense; something that worked in favour of a film like Thomas Vinterberg's masterful Dogme95 experiment Festen (The Celebration, 1997), in which the appearance of a self-shot family portrait plays on the idea of documenting family celebrations in order to preserve that particular memory or occasion. By adopting this specific style, the filmmaker is able to make convincing those scenes that may have previously overwhelmed us, or become an obstruction as a result of their melodramatic superfluities.

Would an audience have believed Christian's (Ulrich Thomsen) fraught dinnertime speech delivered to his father (Henning Moritzen) or the anxious quaver of desperation as he revealed the tragic back-story of his suicidal twin-sister to a room-full of dumbfounded relatives and guests in Vinterberg's aforementioned magnum-opus if it had been shot with all the beauty and grace of a Merchant-Ivory production? Or does the recognisable candid-camera-like intrusion that digital video presents create a more reasonable window into the world in which the exaggerated melodrama of the plot becomes almost plausible?

Visitor Q directed by Takashi Miike, 2001:

Festen directed by Thomas Vinterberg, 1998:

The Remains of the Day directed by James Ivory, 1993:

The use of video implies "realism", but only because of these associations and the natural shock of seeing images stripped of their usual cinematic-gloss. However, it also possesses a more powerful contrast; with the actual look of video, in comparison to 35mm film (or even Super8 or 16mm film) actually becoming more abstract and surreal in both texture and appearance. Although we might identify something apparently truthful (i.e. recognisable) in the presentation of these digital pictures, there is also that alien quality, which exaggerates and distorts.

This particular contrast works perfectly in director Takashi Miike's gloriously subversive satire, Visitor Q (Bijitā Kyū, 2001); a film in which the required use of digital video actually shapes, not only the look and feel of the film, but the actual development of its narrative. The film, best described as a chaotic snapshot of contemporary middle-class Japanese domesticity, is essentially a demented pastiche of the Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini's classic psychological drama, Teorema (1968); a film in which the notion of a seductive young corruptor of innocence - as personified in that particular film by a calculated Terrance Stamp - is here turned upside down; with Miike and his screenwriter Itaru Era turning a stifled, claustrophobic investigation into the unspoken psychosexual desires of a family of Italian intellectuals into a slapstick farce of animated subtleties and stark, almost Buñuelian satirical intentions.

Teorema directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1968:

Visitor Q directed by Takashi Miike, 2001:

Teorema directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1968:

Visitor Q directed by Takashi Miike, 2001:

In both films the plot could be described in a single-line; "A stranger is accepted into a normal family and becomes a catalyst for radical change." As the critic Chris Campion notes in his short-essay included with the Tartan Video Region 2 DVD release of the film, "Pasolini's movie can be seen as both a political and religious allegory; the disintegration of the nuclear family symbolising the rejection of bourgeois values."

In Visitor Q, this initial set-up is turned inside out. In the Pasolini film, the change is for the worse, and the tone of the movie is bleak and filled with deception. However, in Miike's film, the change is for the better, and although this is a picture filled with violence and brutality, the tone is ultimately hopeful. You can feel it in the warm swell of Kôji Endô's subtle score as it lifts the scenes at disarming moments throughout; turning the flashes of degradation and dismemberment into acts of tender mercies.

In Miike's film, the wandering stranger, played here by the actor and director Kazushi Watanabe, positions himself at the heart of the Yamazaki household, where the family, consisting of father Kiyoshi (Kenichi Endo), mother Keiko (Shungiku Uchida), daughter Miki (Reiko Matsuo, billed here as 'Fujiko') and son Takuya (Jun Mutô) are on the precipice of absolute chaos. The lingering air of apocalyptic dread, dysfunction, disorder and disarray is established in the very first scene, with the character of Miki boldly asking the question on-camera, but also to-camera (and by extension, questioning the natural voyeurism of the cinema and the home-cinema audience) - "You wanna know the truth about the youth of today... to predict the future of Japan... this hopeless future?" Miike's provocative inter-title, which then audaciously asks "have you ever done it with your dad?" establishes the dominant tone of the film, finding the middle-ground between absurd parody and actual documentary; polemic and pastiche.

Beyond the more immediate display of the film's humour and approach, Visitor Q demonstrates a keen awareness of the various societal concerns and issues currently facing the modern Japan.  It touches on all the major issues, including sexual abuse, prostitution, drug-dependency, schoolyard bullying and the gradual erosion of the archetypical family unit, in which  father and mother are no longer in a position to fulfil the basic requirements of the patriarch/matriarch model of maintaining an efficient, well-functioning household.

Visitor Q directed by Takashi Miike, 2001:

It is not simply a work of empty shock or spectacle (although it can - no doubt - be approached on such a level), but rather a film that should be appreciated and experienced as a serious commentary on the cycle of violence as illustrated by a family in which the roles of the father and mother have become debased and obscured. A world in which the father is a disgraced news reporter exploiting the decline of his family as way to claw back a sense of respect from his associates and peers, and where the mother has become a tortured heroin addict, turning tricks in order to fund a habit that allows an escape from the regular beatings of her wayward teenage son.

The film implicates the failure of the parents in the failure of their children; for instance, the father's emasculation/humiliation at the hands of a gang of teenage hoodlums' gives way to the son's own torment from the ritualistic abuse of his classmates. This in turn is expressed through his own violent attacks on his mother, who now finds solace in the needle, or in the loveless embrace of anonymous sex-starved salary men, and the obvious parallels here with her own daughter, lost in the big city and also selling sex, until the cycle of failure and abuse, as it is passed back and forth between the generations, becomes painfully clear.

We can see similar issues presented in other Japanese films released around the same period as Miike's film, including the director's own off-the-wall musical satire The Happiness of the Katakuris (Katakuri-ke no kōfuku, 2001), in which the notion of the family in the traditional sense is again documented with a perverse and darkly comic approach that obscures the underlining seriousness of its message. Added to this a film like Shinya Tsukamoto's blistering Bullet Ballet (1998), in which the growing divide between the generations and the punishing loneliness of middle-class Japanese existence is projected against a plot that riffs on Taxi Driver (1976) and Neil Jordan's Mona Lisa (1986); as the characters find escape in nihilistic violence and self-punishment to awake them from the numbing slumber of everyday life.

Such concerns are also very much apparent in the J-horror movement of the late 1990s and early 2000s, as films like Ring (1998) and Pulse (Kairo, 2001) depict the growing disconnection between a generation who find comfort in technology; consigned to a world in which even our ghosts are forced to wander the streets in a lonesome, never-ending limbo. The issues facing the youth of Japan, as alluded to by the presentation of the son, Takuya, are also documented in Shunji Iwai's great film, All About Lily Chou-Chou (Rirī Shushu no Subete, 2001); another picture that uses digital video to abstract the presentation of the world but to also create a vague association with reality.

If Miike's use of video abstracts the presentation, then the line between the viewer and the viewed is further obscured by the position of the lead character, who himself is seen documenting the proceedings with his own pocket-video camera; creating an odd sense of confusion as the story literally consumes itself. The footage shot by the character is as much a part of the film as the footage shot by Miike's frequent cinematographer Hideo Yamamoto, with the distinction between the two forms creating a further blurring of perspectives, as we are forced to question if the strange shifts into more abstract or fantastical moments of surreal expression are real or simply symbolic.

Visitor Q directed by Takashi Miike, 2001:

As the writer Tom Mes suggests in his book Agitator: The Films of Takashi Miike (FAB Press, 2003), the shifts in the narrative and the construction of these characters are nothing less than allegorical. Although it all seems incredibly haphazard and thrown together with a complete disregard for convention, there is a strange kind of logic at work in which the more outrageous or absurd the situations in the film become, the more the whole thing - from the quietest of conversations to the sight of the son, bathing in his mother's seemingly endless river of lactation - begins to make sense.

If the film is shocking or grotesque, it is a deliberate effort on the part of the Miike to show the extent of the decline of their society as the filmmakers see it. By taking these characters to the furthest possible extreme, beyond the merely dysfunctional, Miike and his collaborators seem to be making a deliberate comment on the level of absurdity and horror to which the situation within the family unit has transformed.

In many respects, this is Miike, as filmmaker, working in much the same way as the eponymous Visitor; offering a wakeup call to his characters and his audience in an attempt to stir a reaction. He isn't simply standing back, like Kiyoshi, observing with his video camera as the home fires burn (figuratively) to the ground, but is instead taking an active part in the disintegration; documenting with glee the fall from grace of these characters as they slide into outright insanity, though never once questioning their actions or passing comment until the very end. It is only then, after they've gone beyond all reason that they can step back and look at themselves in a new light, to see what they've become.

If these scenes of rape, domestic abuse and general degradation might lead some to fall back on the well worn criticism that Miike is a vicious misogynist, it is important to remember that the unification and eventual rebirth of the family into a happy, well-functioning unit, comes not from the stranger in the leather trousers and Hawaiian shirt, but from the wounded mother; the symbol of Japanese modernity: the form from which each of us are born. It is only at the end of the film, in which the father and daughter, draped in sheets of glistening blue plastic, suckle the breast as mother floats on a cosmic-calm of post-coital serenity that the order is finally restored.

Visitor Q directed by Takashi Miike, 2001:

These sequences, which can be seen as empty provocation if we buy into the image of Miike as the sadistic wildman of films like Dead or Alive (1999) and Ichi the Killer (Koroshiya 1, 2001) - and not the intelligent, socially-aware filmmaker of The Bird People in China (Chûgoku no chôjin, 1998) and his two "Young Thugs" movies, Innocent Blood (Chikemuri junjō-hen, 1997) and Nostalgia (Bōkyō, 1998) - always serve a purpose within the narrative. The disgrace of the father, exaggerated in the worst possible way, makes him unable to offer a model for his disconnected teenage son; a boy who takes the vile abuse of his bullies and turns it against his mother - herself, a hopeless, heavily in-denial heroin addict who has turned to the murky-world of prostitution in order to feed her addiction. Without the model of domestic stability in place the daughter has gone AWOL, finding affection from a succession of lecherous strangers with no way of return. And of course, if the only way that she can find love and tenderness from her own father is in seducing (and eventually mocking his lack of prowess), then that's the obvious extreme that she's been pushed to.

Nonetheless, the real power of Visitor Q is not in its scenes of spectacle and provocation, but in the odd moments of transcendent beauty that are formed from the most improbable presentation of events. For example, a single reaction shot of Keiko, the mother, coming home to an empty dinner-table, tells us all we need to know about this character - her hopes and disappointments - as the absence of the family that once existed in some form of unity is now spiralling out into the cosmos. Similarly, the closing scene, which captures the reaction of Miki as she discovers the unification between mother and father as if emerging from some kind of somnambulist-like trance - again, viewed telling through the rectangular frame of a window - as the music swells and the camera drifts ever forward to a moment of potential reconciliation.

Although it is filled with exaggerated, over-the-top farce and a mocking humour, the film also possesses this more personal quality, explicit in the fearless performances of the cast and the sheer jaw-dropping ethereal grandeur of its closing scene.