2019 marks the fifteenth anniversary of Fantastic Fest, and they’re celebrating in fine style with a massive slate of features, a fun and fascinating sidebar of Mexican genre cinema, and more events than any one person could physically attend over the course of a week. Daily Grindhouse will be covering select titles from the festival throughout the week and after – with over 90 feature films from all over the world and ranging from repertory screenings to world premieres, there will be plenty to catch up with after the closing night party.
Takashi Miike is an undisputed legend of Japanese genre cinema, a wildly prolific filmmaker who has made dozens of feature films over the course of his career thus far. Any director who has cranked out as many films as quickly Miike is bound to be at least a little inconsistent, but even his less interesting work still displays at least traces of the man’s unique sensibilities. More specifically, Miike has made quite a few yakuza films, ranging from relatively straightforward to, uh, GOZU. It’s a great pleasure that FIRST LOVE, Miike’s latest yakuza tale and the film that screened here (along with THE HAPPINESS OF THE KATAKURIS) in celebration of the man’s career, finds another unexpected angle on some familiar territory. Miike was in attendance along with the film to accept a Fantastic Fest Lifetime Achievement Award, which was a genuine gold-painted coyote skull. It’s a fittingly odd trophy for a director who has made such a huge impression on world genre cinema.
Leo (Masataka Kubota) is a boxer, abandoned at birth and aimlessly drifting until a freak accident in the ring leads him to discover he has a life-threatening tumor at the base of his skull. Monica (Sakurako Konishi) is a young woman who was sold to the yakuza to pay off her father’s debts, and is imprisoned in the apartment of a low-level drug dealer. Kase (Shôta Sometani), a young and traitorous yakuza, concocts a plan with a crooked cop to rip off his gang and pin it on Monica and the rival Chinese gang who is moving in on yakuza territory. But once the plan is set into motion, Leo and Monica’s paths cross at exactly the right time, and what follows is one wild night as the situation spirals dangerously and hilariously out of control.
There’s a bit of heavy lifting at the beginning of FIRST LOVE putting all its pieces into place, but once the action starts it never lets up. The compressed time frame gives it something of the flavor of ’80s cult classics like INTO THE NIGHT, with its characters repeatedly stumbling into bizarre and dangerous situations. It’s increasingly outrageous, eventually including a character who survives multiple murder attempts thanks entirely to her sheer rage and culminating in a vibrant animated interlude required to depict a particularly impossible stunt. It’s a lot of fun and very funny, and despite its violence it never feels overly mean-spirited like some of Miike’s more gruesome work.
FIRST LOVE will be making its way to the States soon, thanks to Well Go USA, so hopefully audiences across the country will get the chance to experience this wild ride on the big screen before too long. Longtime fans of Miike will find a lot to love here, and for anyone who hasn’t taken the plunge yet this is going to be a great introduction to his work.
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