Movie Reviews: Ley Lines

The third of Miike’s “Black Society” trilogy of films about the foreign criminal underworld in Japan is called Ley Lines, and it’s one of those titles that doesn’t make sense until you’re well into the film. Ley lines are divisions across the face of the earth with mystical significance, bringing previously unconnected things into connection. In the same way, the characters in Ley Lines intersect in unexpected ways, revealing connections between them they weren’t aware of.

Ley Lines features three young men, a loose affiliation of criminal youth with no particular direction in life. Their ringleader-of-sorts, Ryuichi, is of Chinese parentage and has no legitimate way to leave the country. He’s fed up with his studious brother for not supporting his folks, but he hasn’t done much of a job himself: his favorite hobbies are petty theft and dope-smoking. He and his two comrades are prime targets for being recruited into the criminal life.

While Ryuichi's brother is headed for something like conventional success,
Ryuichi himself (and his young friends) are bound to end up as criminals.

The boys eventually rack up a little too much bad karma and hop a train for Tokyo, both to escape the consequences of their actions and maybe do something real with their lives. They’re about as naïve as you’d expect. On their first day in the city, they get ripped off by a Chinese prostitute—another very funny scene that ends with the boys robbed blind and then locked in a room in an unfinished building. They’re furious, of course, even if the prostitute winds up getting clobbered by her pimp for raking in too much money from them (“You’ve been moonlighting!” he accuses her).

Then Ryuichi bumps into Barbie, a black drug dealer (“Barbie, like in the doll—don’t I look like her?” he says, even when he doesn’t look a thing like her). Barbie hooks Ryuichi up with his loopy drug-dealing boss (Sho Aikawa). Their stupefiant of choice is not cocaine or heroin, but toluene, an industrial solvent that gives cheap kicks when soaked into hankies and huffed. It’s a “kid’s drug,” akin to airplane glue or whippets, and the kids themselves are the perfect hustlers to move the stuff to other teenagers. The dealer himself is something of a nut, happiest when filling dozens of bottles in his apartment with his face gloved in a gas mask, talking to everyone who’ll listen about how toluene can set the world free.

After getting stiffed in Tokyo's mean streets, Ryuichi and his buddies
manage to get a job hustling toluene for a whacked-out drug dealer.

Ryuichi later bumps into the prostitute again, after being beaten by a particularly kinky john (the cinematography in that scene is one of the movie’s bizarrely tasteless highlights), and the boys wind up shacking up with her. She’s more than happy to join up with them in whatever kooky plans they have, mostly as a slap to the criminal system that sees fit to never give her more than a certain amount of money or opportunity. (She was a schoolteacher back home, and for her to come this far down is more of a blow to her pride than the boys realize at first.) They all eventually hatch a plan to steal tons of money from her pimp and head offshore illegally by stowing away on a boat—but nothing turns out quite how they expect.

Much of the violence is actually in the absurdist vein of a Takeshi Kitano movie (something the 2nd film in this series, Rainy Dog, also seemed to be channeling in a slightly different vein), as when early on in the movie one of the boys commits a holdup with nothing more than a stapler. The humor is usually pretty black, too: another scene later in the film involves someone shooting a cat offscreen, but the timing and deployment is for comedy, not cruelty. One supporting character is a Chinese gangster whose one big yearning in life is for a genuine mainland fairy tale, the kind his mother used to tell him and which he’s since forgotten completely.

They form something like a family with the prostitute who once ripped them off,
and hatch a plan for escaping from Japan altogether.

Ley Lines does a lot of things that may frustrate people who like their movies to be meticulously designed and laid out for them in advance, so to speak. There’s very little in the way of a formal plot: events just sort of pop out of the woodwork, surprising characters and audience alike. For the first 40 minutes or so it’s not clear where any of this is headed. But the various threads, or lines, of the movie all eventually do converge across the entire last half-hour of the film, and the last scenes are bittersweet and poignant in the same manner as Miike’s Dead or Alive 2.

While I can’t say I like all of Miike’s movies, I have never been bored by any of them, and I like how he takes convention genres—crime/noir, thrillers, even horror or fantasy movies—and bends them into quirky shapes. He’s never content to just let simple things happen; he likes to use oddball circumstances and freaky behavior to define the way his universe works. He also doesn’t just like to let things stop; he leaves his movies open-ended in ways that usually more self-conscious “art” directors indulge in. Small wonder this trilogy of films doesn’t need to be watched in any particular order: the viewer can plan his own beginning, progression, and ending through Miike’s universe that way.

Escaping the criminal underworld is never easy, of course,
especially when part of your escape was through ripping it off.

After having watched all three “Black Society” films I think I understand what Miike has been getting at by lumping them together collectively under that label. The foreign criminal underworld in Japan isn’t an aberration, really, but simply an expression of the fact that Japanese society is still by and large closed to outsiders. Crime is the only place many of them can flourish. And even within that system, most of the people stuck there do no better, in the abstract, than if they had managed to fit into “regular” society. The crime family may even be a surrogate for a real family, but only up to a point. At one point the boys are chastised by one of the Chinese gang leaders, who spells out their options for them (such as they are): Straight society will never accept them, so what’s left aside from stealing? The boys take his advice to heart, all right—maybe a little too well.

Tags: Japan Takashi Miike movies review

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This page contains a single entry by Serdar Yegulalp in the categories Movie Reviews, Movies, published on 2004/08/08 18:17.

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