Sunday, April 27, 2008

I will play for you Forest Funk

I took another short hiatus to focus on other things here, but I've returned at last to write what will probably be the last post of April here. (Maybe I'll fit another one in before we hit May, no guarantees.) Still trying to finish that novel, after all. There's still a good ways to go. Progress always tends to go slower than I intend, but it's still coming along.

Anyway, I'm not inspired enough to prattle on about any particular aspect of life at the moment - hopefully the last entry did well enough for the month anyway - so this time around? This Jackass Talks Movies! Part Zwei.

If last time's ultra-obscure Woody Allen tribute wasn't strange enough for you, prepare to have your socks and/or perhaps your wooden clogs knocked off by this one. (Assuming you're some sort of incredibly dated, irrelevant European stereotype, anyway. You don't see too many people like that wandering around these days.)

This time, I feel it's worth drawing your attention to the Japanese 2005 surrealist comedy film, Naisu no Mori: The First Contact, better known in the west as Funky Forest: The First Contact. The film is an essential 150 minute tour de force of its genre, written and directed by Katsuhito Ishii (Cha no Aji/The Taste of Tea, another surrealist comedy, and Samehada Otoko to Momojiri Onna/Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl, an extremely '70s-themed yakuza getaway comedy.), Hajime Ishimine, and Shunichiro Miki. The film enjoyed a brief stint at New York's ImaginAsian Theater back in early March, then finally saw release on DVD here in North America.

The film itself is broken up into a series of loosely-connected vignettes with little in the way of a core story - like many vignette-oriented art house films - focusing on various characters and the extremely absurdly funny situations they get themselves into. What there is of a plot that comes together is a focus on a sort of "couple that is not quite a couple" - Takefumi and Notti (Nocchi) - played by Ryo Kase and Erika Nishikado. Takefumi is a young English teacher, and Notti is his girlfriend and former student (Who doesn't seem to be too much younger than himself, presumably in a later grade or a graduate by then. It's never explained, nor is it important to the plot.). The two of them laze around together at - presumably - Takefumi's house and have meandering conversations that ultimately lead into their discussing dreams they've had. (All the while, Takefumi plays dance music in the background, having a turntable in his living room and apparently working as a DJ as well.) Only two fairly long vignettes seem to explicitly be their dreams, but it could be believably implicit that the rest of the film that the rest of the vignettes that make up the rest of the film are dreams as well. Dreams seem to play a central part in the story, after all, as we look at this couple and see how their dreams reflect on their lives and relationships. They don't appear in all of the other vignettes, but they're participants in some of them, making it unclear whether they are dreams or actual surreal real life events.

The rest of this post is pretty much spoilers (It had to be, at least, because I wanted to really go over all the strangeness this film entails.), so if you've got your interest piqued by what you've read already, you may not want to read on, in the interest of leaving the majority of the film's content a surprise. But if you want a good second opinion without much in the way of spoilers, a fellow westerner who gets it, by all means check out this review at Cinema Strikes Back.

The film begins with a surreal, fairly clear dream in this microscopic cell structure like space, where Takefumi sits inside a sperm-like spaceship of sorts watching a couple of manzai comedians perform their act on a television screen. Then we see a recurring little girl daydream about her own odd little science fiction-esque persona in that same space, increasing and decreasing the speeds at which little spheres orbit one another and eventually shooting a little robot nearby with lasers from her eyes. After being introduced to Takefumi and Notti, we watch another ongoing vignette series unfold - Guitar Brother - initially introduced as the story of three brothers unpopular with women. The middle brother, Masaru (Played the the always-great Tadanobu Asano, who's frequently described as a cross between Johnny Depp and Toshiro Mifune. He's turned memorable performances in films such as Pen-ek Ratanaruang's Last Life in the Universe (A personal favorite, which I'll be writing on later), Takeshi Kitano's Zatoichi, and Katsuhito Ishii's previous films, The Taste of Tea and Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl.), looks rather unkempt, grows his hair out long, and plays the guitar in hopes of getting women with it. He is often seen with his younger brother, Masao, who is a rather rotund white western kid who speaks relatively limited Japanese and never indicates that he speaks any English, instead simply awkwardly interacting with his older brother and irritating him, while sitting around and eating candy bars. (Seemingly particularly partial to Snickers, as it's the only kind mentioned by name in the film.) Why Masao is white and the dynamics of the family are never explained, but in its execution, the humor of his presence works well. Their older brother - whose name I've missed, unfortunately - spends his time in another room practicing an odd dance to an enka song of sorts, also in hopes of making himself attractive to women through this. (The men of Funky Forest tend to draw odd conclusions about what would make women want them, to much comic effect.)

The elder brother later goes on a short trip to a ryokan/inn with hot springs, where he meets a trio of women, who we see several vignettes revolving around - the "babbling hot spring vixens." They chatter amongst themselves, telling one odd story or another (Introducing one of the film's recurring jokes, references to these mysterious "Piko-riko aliens" that nobody has actually seen, and only mentioning Takefumi in passing, one of them saying he was a friend of hers who'd encountered them.). Over time, their stories become more and more pointless and in one calling one another on telling an utterly pointless story and a fairly violent pillow fight erupting in which they all screamed at one another for telling stories with no purpose, causing the hotel staff to rush in and pull them apart. (All of this done in an extremely absurd fashion.) Within this story arc of sorts, the elder brother from the Guitar Brother vignettes invites them to a "gokon"/singles picnic of sorts to help himself, his brother, and their friends meet women. Somewhere in there, we see a scene featuring Notti running through a park and lying down to take a nap, a little black dog - which could have been a scottish or cairn terrier - looking at her.

By the end of the first half of the film, we return to Takefumi and his dream, watching a long, incredibly surreal series of events play out on a beach. He wakes up on the sand when an old, rundown car shines its headlights on him. A punk appears dressed as a demon and dances around him with a gun, then returns to the car and begins to play music. Notti appears in a monster costume, which she unzips to show her face, then sits down on a throne of sorts on a hill overlooking the beach and commands Takefumi to show her his dance moves. The punk plays a variety of music and pairs Takefumi up with all sorts of other dancers - both people in strange costumes and even animated characters - while Notti continued to tell him to dance, dissatisfied with his performances. Takefumi, on the other hand, responds by telling her to show him her feelings, his dream reflecting anxiety he feels about their relationship, while in voiceover, the viewer has already learned that while Notti likes him, she hasn't fallen in love with him yet.

Following Takefumi's dream, we see Notti talk about having had a dream herself, and the film has a three minute intermission.

When the plot resumes, we're introduced to an entirely new set of vignettes.

Throughout the second half, we see these aptly titled vignettes called "HOME ROOM!!!!!!!!!" that focus on various students conducting home room in place of the teacher at the beginning of class (Including Rinko Kikuchi, who received plenty of deserved acclaim for her performance in Babel, and also had a role in The Taste of Tea.), with hilarious and often obscenity shouting-filled results.

A high school girl is tricked into one of the weirdest comedy bits conceivable, in which one of the comedians who draws her in dresses up in a furry costume of sorts that seems to be sealed to his skin and asks her to pull the tail in the front. His partner explains to her that they're serving the Piko-riko aliens, and she agrees to help them by sticking a little tube with a phallic end into her navel, which allows the partner to reach into this box with a distinctly anus-like opening, from which he proceeds to remove a very short (Though not a little person, simply scaled down by camera effects) sushi chef, and reveal to the girl that she'd just participated in a comedy routine.

Another class assembles with very strange looking aliens being played like musical instruments after a great deal of build-up with the utterly bizarre creatures - all of which seemed to have human faces, making them look like genetic experiments gone horribly wrong.

Masaru teaches a girl some sort of sport with at tennis racket at a school gym, which involves a mutated middle-aged man who could be controlled through a weird fleshy bulb that dropped - presumably from his rear- through a hole in a chair to squirt fluids from his freakishly large and long nipples (I wasn't kidding when I said this was a weird movie.) while the girl swung at them with her tennis racket. He then produced these strange mutant creatures from his pants that she'd have to hit out of the air, one of which latched onto her underarm and spawned a mandragora-like creature with a human face that Takefumi called the school doctor to help with. The doctor proceeded to yell at the mandragora of sorts and generally berate and belittle it while it weakly argued in its defense, while eventually stealing his personal stamp (A seal that Japanese people generally have to act as their signature of sorts when signing for things.), hidden within its phallic abdomen after making it squirt a lot of a weird white fluid. (There is no shortage of bizarre metaphorical sexual images in this film, either.) After humiliating the mandragora enough, it was finally removed.

We see Masaru again later working in observing animators drawing cuts for an anime production created by a dog - the same little black dog seen before - who was able to do his job in having an assistant who could read his mind.

Towards the end, live action protesters are seen demanding a raise in an animated world, in which an anime parody story of sorts plays out between a number of crudely animated characters seeking to track down and beat up a new transfer student. Presumably the story the animators were working on before, as it featured the same dog in question.

We finally see the singles picnic unfold, with the Guitar Brother siblings there, along with the angry teachers from HOME ROOM!!!!!!!!!! and several other minor characters from throughout the film. Notti is seen jogging past them. And none of the invited women show up, leading one of the guys to show off his dance moves in encouragement from the others.

After that, we see Notti's dream at last, wherein she's wearing an odd furry costume covering everything but her face and playing a violin in the middle of a forest. The sound she makes begins to change as three alien girls with mixing equipment built into the forest itself around her play with the sound she's making, filling the forest with music, which seems to send them into a state of blissful ecstasy. A young boy records the music, and a wanderer on a pilgrimage stops to listen. When the music ends, the girls and boy all turn to streaks of color which return to a ship in space. Upon the scene's ending, we see one more brief scene between the young couple, and the film ends.

All of this was written doing entirely on memory and what few resources I could find on the overall layout of everything in the film, so I may have the order of things slightly wrong, and perhaps forgotten to include some things as well.

Given the odd fluidity to the random, dreamy, non-linear plot, it is frankly near-impossible to discern how many real people may have been involved in the film's overall story, whether we were witnessing many characters' dreams, or if it revolved entirely around Takefumi and Notti - who admittedly, had the strongest part of the story beyond merely producing laughter, given the subtle tension between them and interesting dynamic of their characters when on screen together - or if their dreams were the only dreams, and the rest of the film was simply random silliness.

A warning to westerners, again (As though it were really needed now, if you read the rest of this.) - the film's sense of humor is very out there. To the point at which for the most part, it hasn't been well-received by western audiences as a whole, simply because you need to effectively cultivate an appreciation of Japanese humor - to be able to "get" it, even to this sort of extreme - in order to be able to fully enjoy Funky Forest. If you lack this, to you, the film may be nothing more than two and a half hours of "What the fuck am I watching!? What is going on!? Ow, my brain!"

There is some meaningful content, a few more serious undertones in some of the plots and statements about life itself and the world around us (As absurdist cinema tends to seek to reflect in the very absurdity that defines it.), but if you can't deal with the eccentric sense of humor through which the film carries itself (The last scene of the film simply amounting to the aforementioned couple that isn't quite a couple, Takefumi and Notti, dancing outside in the fall leaves to a rather meaningless gibberish song Notti begins singing, playing on the word "lie," "uso" (As in telling a lie.), and the end credits rolling at the end of their dance.), you'll likely miss out on these things.

All that said, the cast is wonderful and everyone fits their part well. (There's no shortage of attractive, talented women, either.) The direction is superb, giving the viewer all sorts of interesting and well orchestrated images, both surreal and beautiful. And the music, which plays an important part in the film as it plays out, is infectious and serves each scene well. Beyond its relative - and relative is putting it lightly - inaccessibility to the average western moviegoer in terms of content, Funky Forest is a surreal, hilarious, and supremely enjoyable film.

Don't go into Funky Forest expecting a full coherent linear plot where everything connects and makes sense. It's very far out there as art house films go, and it sheds the traditional conventions of cinema we've come to expect in many regards. If you have the patience to sit through a film that long in fully knowing that it has no real full story that it's trying to tell you, and enough of an appreciation of Japanese humor, by all means, give Funky Forest a chance. It'll have you in stitches practically the entire time, when it isn't making your jaw drop at some of the unexpected and almost-shocking pseudo-sexual images it throws at you for the sake of humor. Rather than try to make sense of it all - life itself rarely makes sense either, after all - just turn off your brain and immerse yourself in the world of Funky Forest. Accept everything you see for what it is, and everything's even funnier. The movie's an even bigger trip than Richard Linklater's Waking Life, the best example I've got for you of a western film that attempts something similarly surreal. (Though Michel Gondry's The Science of Sleep borders on that with its surreal and half-nonsensical dreams as well.)

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