Play it Again
The Japanese independent director Masahiro Kobayashi made Bootleg Film in the late ‘90s. As the title might imply, this is a movie about movies and Kobayashi includes many nods to other films in the highly self-referential style that was popular at the time. The most notable face of this style, Quentin Tarantino, is explicitly discussed along with his Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. Back to the Future and Fargo are also mentioned. The minimalist black and white visuals are reminiscent of both Jim Jarmusch and Francois Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player.
The hipster noir Tarantino style and its lesser imitators had long since become a tired cliché by the late ‘90s and Bootleg Film initially suffers from irritating name dropping and the recreation of images from better films in the expectation that it would rub off on a lesser product. But at the point of exasperation Kobayashi takes a tonal shift that reveals more complicated layers bubbling underneath. Though devoid of any extras that might help to elucidate Kobayashi’s intentions and the film’s context, Facets re-release gives English speaking audiences an opportunity to explore the work of this obscure stylist.
The central premise reads like a high concept collaboration between John Woo and Samuel Beckett. Tatsuo (Akira Emoto), a retired drunk yakuza, and Kiyoshi (Kippei Shiina), a younger cop, are driving to the north of Japan for the funeral of Ayako, Kiyoshi’s ex-wife and Tatsuo’s former lover. She has committed suicide and through meandering dialogue the two men discuss why Ayako might have killed herself, whether it was over the baby that she aborted, and if so, whose baby it might have been.
The two men frequently argue. They talk about movies (Tatsuo is a film buff) and drinking and there is an underlying threat of violence, from the topic of Ayako and from the nature of their jobs. Kobayashi favors a broad brand of comedy with loud screaming and gesticulations that along with the stylized visual approach alienates the audience from making an emotional connection to the characters. (I also felt a cultural disconnect through the foreign style of broad comedy that contributed to this effect outside whatever Kobayashi may have intended.)
The tension between Tatsuo and Kyoshi builds until they pull over at a highway rest stop and point guns at each other in standard Woo fashion. Another car pulls in behind them, a young couple wearing black and shades gets out of the car and says that the two men are “imitating a Tarantino film”. Bootleg Film then swerves into its strangest, most highly stylized portion.
The young couple sees that there is a body in the trunk of the other car. Tatsuo and Kyoshi then each kidnap a member of the couple and drive away separately in the two cars. They intend to kill them but along the way they talk about movies and what they know about them. The sequence is absurd and jarring, the humor is pushed to even broader levels, and Kobayashi tests the limits of audience patience.
Eventually, both cars meet up by a beach, and the movie pivots into a realist direction. Tatsuo kills the couple and the deaths play out in long shots with hand held camera work. It’s the first time that the audience is encouraged to feel empathy and horror for the characters and it is surprisingly effective. After the murder of the couple, Kobayashi continues in this vein.
The eruption of the stylized cinematic violence has a striking effect on Tatsuo and Kiyoshi. Where earlier they seemed to exist in the harmless construct of a movie-generated environment, the deaths impose an awareness of emotional pain that they weren’t recognizing through the mannered dialogue of the car scenes.
Suddenly the outside world bears down harder on the two men and the landscape shots by cinematographer Akira Sakoh wonderfully captures the harsh beauty of their environment as they undergo this shift. After burying the couple the two men steal Ayako’s body from her parent’s house and take it to an abandoned ski resort, where they play out their interpersonal conflict and the lingering affects of her death and the murder of the couple against the bleak snow-covered mountains.
Though the idea of a bootleg film is never discussed, Kobayashi appears to be commenting on the existential dead-end of the self-referential movies of the ‘90s. During the middle portion, when the references are piled relentlessly on top of each other, the characters and the film itself becomes unmoored, unconnected to any reality except its own filmic construct.
Emotionally the characters are faded copies culled from the pieces of other characters and they are unable to deal with the intrusion of reality through the deaths of Ayako and the couple. The minimalist style used at the beginning and the end of the movie emphasizes their limited nature; Kobayashi opens and ends the movie with the same dialogue scene, giving the impression of a closed and repeating loop.
As a commentary on modern life, such an idea is limited, settling on an idea of pop culture saturated alienation that itself may be as much a construct as a movie. Yet Kobayashi’s conceptual inventiveness makes for a dynamic viewing experience and there are enough subtle shadings in the final sequence at the ski resort that Bootleg Film is fairly successful and effective in the emotional responses it provoked from me as a viewer, simultaneously decrying the limits of Tarantino’s imitators while emulating the complex layerings of the director’s greatest work.