SPENCER: Winner of the People’s Choice Award in the Midnight Madness section of the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival, Why Don’t You Play In Hell? is Japanese writer/director Sion Sono’s demented genre mash-up of outsized proportions. Crafted from a 15 year-old script, the madcap narrative sees the eventual convergence of a number of storylines (including an amateur film crew’s years-long quest to make a movie, an extended conflict between two warring yakuza crews, and the rebellious exploits of one of the gangs’ boss’ actress daughter) that culminates in a prolonged setpiece that recalls the climax of Kill Bill Vol. 1—if it were being filmed for a movie-within-the-movie. Sono ping-pongs from absurdist humor to extreme violence and back, managing a careful balancing act of wildly disparate tones. What is perhaps most endearing, though—apart from elements such as the use of music and the ensemble’s remarkable talent for physical comedy—is Sono’s earnest commitment to such ludicrous material. He treats each plot thread as if they were all standalone works, pushing them to unpredictable extremes: the wannabe filmmakers’ (non)coming-of-age story develops into a nostalgic celebration of youthful dreams and celluloid-based moviemaking; the feuding yakuza sequences blend genre elements from gangster sagas and samurai flicks; the young actress’ journey surprisingly shifts from troubled teen tropes to a kind of deranged romantic comedy. It can be exhausting, but amidst all the madness are scattered bits of affecting expressionism—see the breathtaking entrance of a little girl sliding across an inches-thick pool of blood—that punctuate Sono’s delirious mayhem with sharp instances of unexpected beauty.
SAM: Describing a director’s work as “like Quentin Tarantino” has become sort of a rote comparison, but it’s inescapable when talking about Sion Sono’s Why Don’t You Play in Hell?. Aside from the virtuoso Kill Bill-esque finale you mentioned, Spencer, one of the characters, Sasaki (billed as the next Bruce Lee action star by his filmmaking friends) sports a yellow jumpsuit similar to the one donned by Uma Thurman’s character The Bride—a probable homage to the film and its director. The editing, also reminiscent of Tarantino/1990s action films with its fast-paced wipe transitions, is also worth mentioning as it heightens the film’s chaotic atmosphere significantly, jumping from each plot thread until they all intersect and it devolves into a surreal and glorious mess. It makes sense that the script is 15 years-old (a fact unbeknownst to me while watching it) because Sono’s goofy blend of yakuza grindhouse cinema has been done over by imitators, often resulting in a film that—while fun—can occasionally feel familiar. Despite this drawback, the project maintains momentum by way of its sheer lunacy and intelligence, and the lament for 35mm adds a dose of timely melancholy amid the chaos.
Why Don’t You Play In Hell? is playing in Toronto at The Royal from January 23rd – 29th.