The Glamorous Life of Sachiko Hanai doesn’t seem to know when it has it good. It starts off promisingly, and then gets sidetracked in things that are so much less interesting than its original premise—and, worst of all, aren’t particularly funny. Quick, what’s more interesting, a story about a quirky and unpredictable character—or a dreary plot about a stolen piece of nuclear launch hardware and a bunch of easy cheap shots against the Bush administration? The only thing drearier than the movie’s sullen-supposed-to-be-stinging politics is the way people have lined up to bark about how great it is, but just because I don’t agree with our current administration doesn’t also mean I have to make nice on every movie that does. The vast majority of Sachiko Hanai is nowhere nearly as interesting as the press about it.
The Sachiko of the title works as a call-girl in one of those Tokyo role-playing clubs where various creepy perverts pay piles of money to have sex with school tutors and nurses. One night she goes to the wrong café for an assigned rendezvous and ends up getting shot in the face—but, amazingly, she doesn’t die. Instead, she wanders off into the night and continues to service customers with a bullet hole in her forehead. Then, after a mishap with a pencil while trying to pry it out (accompanied with a convenient animated diagram) she gives herself a quasi-lobotomy and acquires a super-genius I.Q.
At first this is great, as Sachiko runs amok in every library and used bookstall in Tokyo sucking up knowledge like a, uh, sponge. (I was going to say something else, but never mind.) She corners a professor in his office and they babble at each other about chaos theory and situationalism while he grinds his face into her prodigious chest and she gives him “extra service”—just what he needs, he claims, since his wife doesn’t ever talk about Susan Sontag or Noam Chomsky with him. (Stewart Home would have loved this movie.) He invites her to stay with him and tutor their son—“What a learning curve you have!” the boy enthuses—and on arriving at their house Sachiko cheerfully tells the professor’s wife about her home back in Kansas with Aunt Emily. I grinned, as I could see any number of ways this could flower into a minor classic.
Then other plot developments start to creep up, and they kill the film dead. The man who drilled her in the forehead, a North Korean agent, tracks back to Sachiko’s apartment and stakes it out—eating the CARE packages that her mother sent for her, stuffing the bodies of dead deliverymen in the bathtub, and (most hilariously) beating off to the pictures she snapped of herself on her cellphone. Sachiko herself develops progressively weirder behavior on top of her idiot-savant fits: her intellect seems to have been unleashed at the expense of cross-wiring her senses, and then there comes a pornographic—and ostensibly allegorical—subplot about a clone of President Bush’s index finger that I won’t even attempt to describe here. And then we slide into the movie’s dreary latter half, where none of the promises of the first half are fulfilled in the slightest way and we get to watch Sachiko get chased around by men with guns when she’s not masturbating uncontrollably.
This brings me to the movie’s two main problems: its politics and its sex, because the way they interfere with the movie as a whole are markedly similar. I don’t have a problem with the movie being anti-Bush per se, but the anti-Bush commentary is strictly Yippie-level pointing and sniggering, and it’s not like we have a shortage of that elsewhere. (It also leads into the inane spy plotline that eats up the second half of the movie and made me wish it had ended half an hour earlier.) And then there’s the sex, which has been defended on the grounds that it was made by a director who specialized in this sort of thing and therefore he’s attempting to satirize it, or something—except that satire has to actually be satirical, and including sex in an ostensibly funny movie doesn’t automatically make the sex or the movie satirical. It isn’t even arousing, just creepy and tiresome. It takes an extraordinary effort on the part of a director to make sex interesting on screen, which is probably why we don’t see that much of it—not because it’s taboo (it hasn’t been taboo in the movies for decades, really), but because watching actors grinding away at each other is generally about as interesting as watching rain-slicked pavement dry up.
The biggest problem with Sachiko Hanai is, in the end, how it feels like such a wasted opportunity. I could imagine a film about a Tokyo call girl who unexpectedly becomes blessed with genius and has to deal with the consequences—maybe like a hybrid of Being There and one of Nobuyoshi Araki’s photo-essays about Japan’s sexual underworld, both grimy and tender. What we have here is more like Debbie Does Pyongyang.