All About Lily Chou-Chou is one of those movies where the idea behind the movie is more interesting than anything in it. Director Shunji Iwai created a web site devoted to a fictitious Bjork-like pop star and asked people to freely contribute material about her. He also included ingredients about the murder of a (also fictitious) Lily fan, from which he derived enough material through other people's feedback to create not only a novel but to update an old screenplay he'd written about the coming of age of two boys in modern Japan.
This is a fascinating concept. The real shame of All About Lily Chou-Chou is that all of this energy and creative work has not produced a better film. Lily is an ungainly, fractured, bewildering movie that despite its massive collection of characters and incidents and concepts winds up being about nothing much at all. Like Blue Velvet, another psychically wounding movie that has been widely praised, Lily contains moments of such emotional rawness that it's not hard to see how it has garnered many staunch defenders. But the film is so abstruse and fragmented on every level it's nearly impossible to ascribe motives or experience any payoff. We're just looking at ugly behavior, like someone's morbid home movies. If some films are dismissed as being cinematic masturbation, Lily probably qualifies as cinematic coitus interruptus.
Lily deals with Yuichi (Hayato Ichihara), a painfully withdrawn young man who consoles himself by maintaining a website about his favorite pop singer (the titular Lily). At school he's bullied and harassed, and one of his former friends, Hoshino (Shugo Oshinari) evolves into his biggest nemesis, eventually enslaving both him and the girl Yuichi idolizes but cannot bring himself to open up to, Yoko (Ayumi Ito). Hoshino forces another girl, Shiori (Yu Aoi) her to prostitute herself to businessmen, and Yoko is herself bullied ruthlessly by a girl clique, presumably because she's more popular than they are. The few adults in their lives are either ineffectual, clueless, or completely disconnected from their children, but their level of disconnect is pitched at such an absurd level (and played out so awkwardly) t hat it goes from be ing pitiable to idiotic.
What is hardest to convey is how pointlessly random the movie is. Characters show up, disappear, or are dismissed at a whim. There were many scenes where I was not sure if we were in the past or the present, or who was doing what to whom, or why, or to what end. Many events simply defy explanation: at one point Yuichi is drafted in as a bodyguard to Shiori, for no apparent reason other than to rub his nose in it, despite the fact that he's the last person, logically or strategically, you would want to trust with such a mission. How it is that Yuichi, despite having almost no money, is able to afford a $2500 computer? And when Yoko is humiliated and has her head shaved, don't you think her parents would notice? This isn't the "anarchy of life" at work or some other such artsy explanation: this is just sloppy storytelling, plain and simple.
The film's frenzied visual style (lots of hand-held camerawork) doesn't help matters any. Iwai periodically overlays text from the Lily chatroom onto the screen, or switches from hand-held 35 to DV (as when several of the kids go on a vacation to Okinawa that was probably financed by stolen money). Sometimes he uses that cheesy green-light "night vision" that seems to have become popular lately, and sometimes he just seems to be pointing the camera at the floor. In a movie with a more disciplined story — and more of a story to tell, come to think of it — this would be more palatable, but here it's nauseating and jarring. Other attempts to connect the students' on-line lives to their real lives are just ham-handed — we see Yuichi being bullied, and then retreating into his on-line persona, but this happens so many times it becomes tiresome and unrevealing.
Iwai has directed some magnificent movies. His Swallowtail Butterfly was one of the best films I'd seen from Japan, and its three hours never seemed to dawdle. Lily clocks in at 145 minutes and is one long slog unleavened by real insight or even much coherency. And the end of the film verges on insult — it depends on a plot twist that would barely pass muster in a cheapie teeny-bopper movie, and here is used to provide an excuse for the sort of throwaway violent ending that many "art" directors seem to think will give their movie an "edge." There's a real callousness in thinking the way to give your characters meaning is to torment them mercilessly and then have them kill each other off.
I've said before that the makings of a good story are here. It's not the subject matter I find distasteful, but the ill-fitting execution and approach. Here we have this terribly excruciating material about the real hell adolescent kids can put each other through, and the director has chosen to throw it at us like a postmodern jigsaw puzzle with cheap plot tricks. I have nothing against experimentalism in movies, but it has to be admitted that sometimes the experiments fail.
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