Scrap Heaven is one of those movies that should be more interesting than it actually is. It contains the kind of antisocial mayhem pioneered (if that’s the right word) in movies like Fight Club—and also, unfortunately, the same kind of chicanery that passes for black comedy or socially-relevant satire. If they had taken the first fifteen or twenty minutes, stripped out the rest of the film and started completely over, they might really have had something here. But the movie as it stands just doesn’t hang together in anything but the most labored way.
The film deals with three people who all end up as hostages on a bus that’s been hijacked by a loon with a gun. There’s Shingo (Ryo Kase, also of Bright Future, Letters from Iwo Jima and the as-yet-unreleased-here I Just Didn’t Do It), a desk cop whose career is at a standstill, and who becomes an object of ridicule among his cohorts when he panicks on the bus and doesn’t do anything to help. Tetsu (Jō Odagiri, of Azumi and Shinobi), a janitor with a prankish side, gets singled out by the gunman and shot in the shoulder. Saki (Chiaki Kuriyama), a pharmacist missing an eye, is the last person to interact with the kidnapper before he puts his gun to his neck and blows his brains out.
So far, so good. From this kickoff I expected something along the lines of, say, Eureka, the remarkable Shinji Aoyama movie about a group of people dealing with the aftermath of a disaster. Something of the kind does seem to be brewing at first. Shingo and Tetsu run into each other more or less at random several months after the incident—the former arrests the latter to get him away from a gang of goons hellbent on beating his face in—and form a tentative friendship. Tetsu senses that Shingo feels frustrated and defeated, not just because he was turned down for a transfer to Homicide but because he scarcely seems to be cop material at all. Perhaps what’s needed is for them to get involved in some more direct action. And with that, Tetsu sets up (with Shingo’s assistance) a “revenge-for-hire” business, where they meet people in the filthiest public bathroom since Trainspotting and help them get even.
This is where the movie steps wrong, and it just continues to step wrong again and again after that. The revenge jobs that these two take on are I guess, supposed to be funny and pathetic at the same time—the work of people who don’t understand what they’re messing with—but the movie seems confused about that, and tries to make their “work” funnier than it really deserves to be. One episode in particular, involving a kid getting revenge on an abusive mom, is particularly cringeworthy: it’s not in bad taste, exactly, but it’s so outré and ultimately dimwitted that it causes the movie to grind its gears. I’ve written before, many times, how Asian movies (Japanese and Korean, mainly) can often get away with this sort of thing, but it’s not something that comes automatically with the territory, and here it definitely doesn’t come automatically.
The biggest problem, I guess, is how these characters ought to be far more interesting than the movie ever gives them a chance to be. Chiaki Kuriyama’s character, for instance—she spends her spare time brewing up nitroglycerine in her bedroom, and even ropes Tetsu into posing as a potential suitor, but she’s never developed in a way that makes her more than a convenience of the story. And then there’s the whole final third of the film, where Shingo and Tetsu make off with two cops’s sidearms and unleash a whole ghastly chain reaction of events that play out in a far less compelling way than they ought to.
It’s not like the performances aren’t good—Odagiri has great fun with his role, clambering and scampering all over the place like a demented monkey; Kase is appropriately repressed; and Kuriyama is always easy on the eyes. The problem, again, is the lack of a consistent, workable tone for the picture. Sang-il Lee (of the Ryū Murakami adaptation 69) jumps all over the place, from breaking-the-fourth-wall wink-wink film effects to bruising, cold-eyed drama. He gives us a whole basketful of moods when one would have done the job, for a change. More is not always better, and this lumpy mess is proof of that.
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