Why Don't You Play in Hell? (Jigoku de naze warui): Venice Review

Irresistible trashy fun in a cross-genre free-for-all.

Japanese genre master Sion Sono is back with a madcap salute to cinema and yakuzas.

There is something inherently satisfying in pairing gangsters and movie makers. While we await a serious film treatment of the subject, there are comic gems that point out their affinity, like the HK comedy Vulgaria about a producer who stoops to the unthinkable to make a porn film for the leader of a triad gang. That is a sophisticated work compared to Why Don’t You Play in Hell?  Totally outrageous but surprisingly successful on its own terms, this wild melange of yakuza wars and student filmmaking marks Japanese veteran Sion Sono’s return to the Suicide Club genre, with farcical teenage rom com thrown in as an extra. Festival fans of his two vivid auteur dramas on the Fukushima tragedy, Himizu and The Land of Hope, will have some adjusting to do.

The film’s reputed similarity to Kill Bill is more a question of tone than substance. One can imagine Quentin Tarantino enjoying the way Sono succeeds in turning silliness into a heartfelt salute to old-fashioned 35mm movie-making, without foregoing a tongue-in-cheek bloodbath that leaves the film set littered with severed limbs and spurting arteries. After its bow in Venice Horizons (a bit of a stretch) and Toronto’s Midnight Madness, it should barrel through more fests before hitting HV. Drafthouse Films has acquired North American rights.

According to the press release, the 119 minute version screened at Venice is a special director’s cut.

In this update on a pre-digital age screenplay Sono wrote 17 years ago, the story of the “Fuck Bombers,” a group of irresponsible film nerds lead by would-be director Hirata (Hiroki Hasegawa), bids a fond farewell to 35mm. However, their guerrilla filmmaking antics, encouraged by an old projectionist who seems lifted from New Cinema Paradiso, soon grow stale even after they annex Sasaki, a young wannabe gangster, as their “new Bruce Lee.”

Meanwhile, a yakuza clan stages a bloody ambush on the home of rival boss Muto, played to a deadpan T by the wonderful character actor Jun Kunimura (Hard Boiled, Outrage).  His wife happens to be in the kitchen chopping carrots, and goes on a rampage knifing all the hit men. The only survivor is the good-looking Ikegama (Shinichi Tsutsumi), who is bleeding profusely when little Mitsuko, the Mutos’ 10-year-old daughter and star of a famous TV toothpaste commercial, appears. Ikegama sings the jingle along with her and is smitten with a pedophile infatuation that will last until he next sees her, ten years later, as the prettiest, sexiest, meanest girl in Japan (played with bold verve by an unrecognizable but devastatingly funny Fumi Nikaido, the award-winning young actress from Himizu.)

The plot spins around and around. Since Mrs. Muto is about to get out of prison after sacrificing herself to defend him, her husband sentimentally wants to satisfy her dream of seeing Mitsuko become a movie star. His tete-a-tete with a film producer underlines how perfectly they understand each other. It will be Hirata, of course, whose prayers to the Movie God are finally answered when he gets the chance of a lifetime to shoot a final sword battle between the Muto and Ikegama clans, in which yakuzas become the film crew and the movie people become part of the action.  

Despite its trashy humor which sometimes seems a bit too exotic to be funny, the film has unquestionably well-done scenes that cover a variety of genres. There is true poignancy when Sasaki decides to quit the Fuck Bombers, and tenderness in the off-screen kiss between bad-girl Mitsuko and a nice boy she picks up on the street (Gen Hoshino) and falls for.

The lighting and tech work has a fast and furious look to it, and editing sometimes feels like anything goes. The music track, whose recurring sound gag is the repeated use of Handel’s stately Sarabande of Barry Lyndon fame, is as varied as the rest.

Venue:  Venice Film Festival (Horizons), Aug. 28, 2013

Production companies:  King Record, Bitters End  

Cast: Jun Kunimura, Shinichi Tsutsumi, Hiroki Hasegawa, Gen Hoshino, Fumi Nikaido, Tomochika

Director, screenwriter: Sion Sono

Producers: Takeshi Suzuki, Takuyuki Matsuno, Sadai Yuji

Director of photography:  Hideo Yamamoto

Production designer:  Isao Inagaki

Music:  Sion Sono

Editor: Junichi Ito

Sales:  Elle Driver

No rating,  119 minutes.