The plot thickens. As if to grace my festival diary with some semblance of continuity, the movie gods had me clamber up the stairs of Shoreditch’s Rich Mix Cinema, waddle along the walkway leading to the main screen and come to a flabbergasted standstill alongside a display of T-shirts each sketched with quotes from the likes of Jean-Paul Sartre, Socrates, Albert Camus and more. Oh, boy. Here, a mere day into my festival odyssey, I had chanced upon the origin point of these bizarre literal fashion ‘statements’. I can forgive the bags; one can just as easily lob a Godard bag into the river upon sobering up to the realisation that it might be a bad idea, though the same can scarcely be said for a t-shirt – that is, unless your body’s next course of action is to follow that bag into the river. I fear this particular narrative has found its zenith far too early and, as a consequence, will heretofore not be brought up again. On the off-chance that Patient Zero materialises, however…
A separate tremendous worry seized my chest as I stepped through the upper floor of Rich Mix, and that was before I’d stumbled across the clothes rack. You see, I had Sion Sono’s Tokyo Tribe due to start at 6.15 in that very venue, and after 116 minutes I would have the unenviable task of zipping across the city (correction: standing, still, sweaty, saturated, seething, on the underground) to make an 8.30 screening of Diao Yinan’s Black Coal, Thin Ice at the West End Vue in Leicester Square. A cocktail of foresight deficiency and overabundant excitement had driven me to draw up plans I could not conceivably carry to fruition. I almost wanted Sono’s film to alienate me, to hand me ample reason for a mad dash to the exit, in spite of my unfortunate positioning at the far end of a row furthest from the only door (again, no foresight).
Sono’s films, to me at least, follow the same general trajectory of at first invigorating my attention, at long last exhausting it. His eccentric approach to form, his unyielding vulgarity, penchant for the bloody and the down ‘n’ dirty, never quite holds long enough to retain my goodwill to the bitter end. Indeed, I cannot be certain that 2008’s 4-hour Love Exposure would stand as tall in my good graces as once it did. But Tokyo Tribe is something else entirely; it may be the most complete, tightest synthesis of everything Sono is known and venerated for, an unexpectedly perfect storm of vision, creativity and pure effort served through a skewered, screwy lens: the logical end, the final extreme of everything we’ve seen from him thus far. Stick a fork in him – he’s done.
Based on Santa Inoue’s manga of the same name, Tokyo Tribe is set in an apocalyptic future that sees Tokyo split into several provinces overruled by separate distinct gangs. Each of these gangs – indeed, everyone in the film – speaks in hip-hop: aggressive, cordial or simply non-plussed, almost all dialogue is delivered in rap-speak atop of boom-bap beats that act as the foundational pulse for the film’s manic rhythm. I could waste this space on inessential plot descriptions – on the nefarious machinations of a demonic gang-lord played by Riki Takeuchi – but such considerations are secondary to the wholesale aesthetic commitment undertaken by Sono, his crew and the limitless collection of choreographed gang-troopers. In the film’s first scene, we’re introduced to Tokyo as we’ve never known it by way of a weaving track shot, soaking in the scattered luminous lights, the extras on the periphery, the slightest hint of agency that may attract our curiosity. From there, we’re thrown headfirst into the cluttered mythology of this world through exposition rendered palatable in the form of freestyle. The design of this world is unlike anything seen in a Western Hollywood production: from the hazed lens flare of the café wherein the teenage Mushishino gang reside to the blood-red box room housing human-shaped furniture that seems to exist in the middle of nowhere, the sheer range, effort and commitment to vision on display is truly something to behold. There’s more imagination in a thimbleful of this than in an entire supply line of algorithmically-produced Marvel creations. Consider what you see here alongside, say, Thor, whose Asgard is but a 2-dimensional backdrop, and where most action takes place on an unremarkable CGI bridge. A bridge. It’s just one mediocrity among many so willingly propped up by a critical vanguard with diminished standards.
If Sion Sono’s last film asked us Why Don’t You Play in Hell?, the answer given by Tokyo Tribe would be an emphatic ‘alrighty then’. Over the course of the film we bear witness to some of the most depraved, grotesque methods of maiming and killing, all delivered with the deranged buoyancy we’ve come to expect from this mad-hatter filmmaker. This is a completely hopeless world, irredeemably damned to hell, but somehow it all translates as mere folly, the weight of death reduced to cartoonish violence as befits its manga origin. And yet, for a film whose main antagonist is motivated to kill based on the size of his foe’s penis, it truly is a testament to Sono’s ability that his coda, a group rap-along of warming, life-affirming proportions, was able to leave me on a strange feeling of hope that should have been unearned in light of the preceding horror. That’s some kind of magic.
I made it to Black Coal Thin Ice, barely. Earlier in the day I had teetered on the brink of sacking off one of these screenings, and Sono’s film almost took the axe. Thank god it didn’t. If push came to shove, Diao Yinan’s Golden Bear winner would have plunged by a whisker. It’s decent enough, a serviceable neo-noir anchored by strong characterisation and a gripping central narrative, and one can see how it easily whipped top honours, considering the sharp, bleak aesthetic implied by its title. Dong Jinsong’s stark cinematography paints a sombre China caked in a dusting of snow, a crisp white pristineness bathed in green neon lights on high – a sort of cold warmth, a bare comfort. Equally impressive is a first-rate sound design that punctuates each gesture with the felt crunch of snow beneath the feet, the pop of a firework and the oft-heard-but-never-like-this pierce of a single gunshot. The film had its way with my senses, though I wasn’t so enamoured with the total of sum of its parts.
Obsessive male mavericks and beleaguered femme fatales make for familiar bedfellows, as is the case here. Black Coal, Thin Ice stalks alongside alcoholic ex-cop Zhang (Fan Liao, recipient of the Silver Bear for Acting) as he doggedly pursues the answers to a case involving a series of murders centred around laundry shop worker and widow Wu Zhizhen (Lun Mei Gwei). Wu drifts through the film like a ghost, a long-suffering pale imitation of someone she might have formerly been. In one scene, she breaks off from a circle of ice-skaters, fleeing in gracefully slow movements down a makeshift pathway in the snow, flickers of snow falling around her that could easily be mistaken for scratches of film grain. Wu, Zhang and the rest of the film’s modest number persist as unwilling holdovers from a trauma that still grips like a vice, and they exist in a depiction of northern China that feels almost deserted of humanity save for the main characters; it is a ghost town for whom winter is more way of life than a single season. While it may not leave one breathless, Yinan’s film is nevertheless elevated from procedural groundings by strong characterisation; a measured, trusting pace; and a distinct mood conjured from crisp, sharp aesthetic judgement. Its smog is a breath of fresh air over most other murder-mysteries, themselves carried by anonymous ciphers charged with motive, devoid of motivation. Don’t count it out.