"All About Lily Chou-Chou" is one of the most beautifully shot films of 2002. The scenery is breathtaking and there is plenty of artistic crux to digest. But it is heavily flawed, and how unfortunate, because director/writer Shunji Iwai had the potential to make a masterpiece.
This is another movie about lost teenagers, but "All About Lily Chou-Chou" is deeper and more methodical than most American 'pie' dramas. Yuichi (Hayato Ichihara) is a junior-high school drifter in desperate need of direction. He befriends a kid named Hoshino (Shugo Oshinari), who gets him involved with street gangs and violence. Hoshino forces Yuichi to steal money for him and subjects him to all sorts of cruelty.
Yuichi has only one outlet from his depressing life, and that is through the songs of Japanese pop artist, Lily Chou-Chou. Don't be fooled by the title. Her chilling lyrics are the only thing we hear from her, and we never see her except for a gloomy digital shot broadcasted outside of an arena where she performs in concert at the film's climax.
Other characters affect the mood, including Shiori Tsuda (Yu Aoi), a classmate of Yuichi who becomes a prostitute at the pushing of Hoshino. Another girl, Yoko Kuno (Ayumi Ito), is a talented pianist who is ridiculed for her looks and eventually shaves her head. Rival gangs battle each other and leaders conquer, only to become worse than the bullies they dethroned. The mood doesn't get any lighter as some kids are raped and some are murdered.
The movie is Japanese with English subtitles, but even Japanese audiences will be doing a lot of reading as much of the movie takes place in an online chat room dedicated to Lily Chou-Chou. At least once every other scene, the movie stops in dead in its tracks so we can review more transcripts from a recent chat session. Every member of the forum is obsessed with Lily, and they all bow to the 'ether' from which they believe Lily's music comes from. Some of the chat logs flow like poetry, which made we wonder if any of their lives were as depressing as Yuichi's. I wonder if there are American kids today who enslave themselves over pop idols to the point of ailment; after viewing this movie, I wouldn't be so surprised if it were true.
The music of Lily Chou-Chou isn't the main element of the plot, but it is what allows the young teens to function in society. It allows them to escape to their fantasy world where nothing can bother them. They finally have a person to look up to that isn't a cold-blooded killer. We don't see the kids listening to the music much, but we always hear it as the lyrics stream from the theater speakers.
The movie's style is too decorated for my tastes, and even the most liberal audiences will have trouble clearing away the unnecessary scrap and rubbish to get to the beef the of the movie, which is hidden so well. Sure, we like to figure out movies for ourselves and come up with our own interpretations, but this movie is too intrusive.
For example, much of the time we are reading text transcripts from Lily fans on the website. Rather than displaying the conversations in front of a comfortable black background, the screen flashes and displays technical garble to the sound effects of keyboard typing.
The biggest problem is how director Iwai and his cinematographer, Noboru Shinoda, keep such a distance between the movie and its audience. We as the audience, so badly want to connect with the movie, but we must first move obstacles out of the way that are blocking the screen. After the boys steal money from a wealthy man, they splurge on a vacation to Okinawa, where we view the trip through Yuichi's digital camera that at times is so shaky I was immediately reminded of "The Blair Witch Project." While in "Blair Witch" the nauseating camera work was an effect, in this movie it is an abstraction, along with the flashing screens resembling a chat room for Lily fans.
There are several images that will leave a memorable impression on everyone paying attention. The only problem is that most of the audience will be sleeping through much of it. It is 146 minutes in duration, and it could have been longer, it sure felt like it. Shunji Iwai just didn't want to put the camera down, and insisted that we watch useless sub-plots that would have better suited the extra features menu on the DVD. The recital scene is one that could have been trimmed. But Iwai wanted us to watch the entire performance, from song's beginning to end.
Japanese filmmakers are known for producing haunting visual spectacles. This movie is no exception. But the plot is thick and often unclear. This is evident by the critics' varying interpretations. All of their plot explanations collide with one another, proving how difficult this movie is to decipher. Some critics say Yoko Kuno shaved her own head out of humiliation, while LA Time's Kevin Thomas said it was Hoshino's gang that shaved her head after they raped her. Other critics dispute character motives, while I believe there is no correct answer. In fact, I think many critics were so dumbfounded that they couldn't write much in their reviews. Most of the ones I've read are nothing more than a short capsule review.
I don't normally recommend movies in the 'C' range, but it's worth your time if you're in the mood for a good brain exercise. I always encourage readers to see foreign movies to get the experience that is absent in mainstream cinema. If only Shunji Iwai had toned it down a little and spent more time (or any at all) in the editing room where much of the irrelevant scenes could have been cut. Had Iwai done those things, then "All About Lily Chou-Chou" would have been more than just a mixed bag.