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pre-melon exercises in Funuke

 
 
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Funuke: Show Some Love, You Losers!
cast: Eriko Sato, Aimi Satsukawa, Masatoshi Nagase, and Hiromi Nagasaku

director: Daihachi Yoshida

113 minutes (15) 2007
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Third Window DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
For a long time now, Japanese cinema has been synonymous with genre. Ask your average punter for an impression of the Japanese film industry and he'll most likely mention samurai films, big rubbery monsters, horror and cutesy or violent cartoons. It would be comforting to think that this is a misrepresentation based upon the subtle filtering of Japanese culture by the unseen hand of the western market but evidently, genre does cast a very long shadow even in the domestic Japanese market. Given these kinds of cultural conditions, it is always a pleasure when a genuine drama finds its way through. Funuke: Show Some Love, You Losers! (aka: Funuke domo, kanashimi no ai wo misero) is very much a melodrama. Based upon a novel by Yukiko Motoya, and influenced not only by manga but also by Japanese TV soap operas (known as 'doramas'), Funuke is a mesmerising and yet deeply strange combination of misanthropic gallows humour and genuine human emotion.

Funuke is a film that is undeniably true to its soap operatic roots. Most popular TV dramas lack the kind of tidy narratives or big ideas that sustain most films. Instead they have complex tales of human interest which can seem banal and pointless on paper but which become compelling on screen thanks to the skill of the actors and the way that the writers allow space for tensions to build whilst juggling multiple plotlines. Indeed, with this type of material, actors have to walk a psychological tightrope; exaggerating normal human emotions to the point where banal human interest stories become compelling viewing, but without exaggerating the situations so much that the entire edifice collapses in on itself under the weight of silly over-acting and camp plotlines. A nice illustration of how delicate this balancing act is can be seen in the clips used by Harry Hill in his TV Burp programme: when Coronation Street runs a plotline about serial killers millions tune in to watch. However, remove some of those individual scenes from their natural context and suddenly the plotlines look silly, the dialogue atrocious and the actors mentally ill. Funuke walks that tightrope with a good deal of elegance.

The film opens with a lovely old couple being run over by a truck and smeared across the road like so much strawberry jam. In the wake of this unfortunate event, their surviving family are forced to live together prompting them to rediscover old grievances and dark secrets. Morose charcoal-maker Shinji (Masatoshi Nagase) is married to the over-compensating orphan Machiko (Hiromi Nagasaku) but the marriage is loveless and bitter because of a pledge made by Shinji to his sister the demented failed actress Sumika (Eriko Sato) who, in turn, is playing out a long-standing vendetta against dark-minded younger sister Kyomi (Aimi Satsukawa), whom she blames for spoiling her career by publishing a satirical manga about her. Add to this a sprinkling of incest, a pinch of self-destruction, a soupçon of prostitution and a large portion of self-destructiveness and you have a film that is held aloft by hideous emotional knots, and driven along by the need to unravel those knots regardless of how degrading, shameful and lethal the consequences might be.

Mercifully, despite dark themes and twisted goings on, Funuke resists the urge to come across as whimsical or silly. An urge fully embraced by films such as Tetsuya Nakashima's story of rural Japanese dysfunction, Kamikaze Girls, or Satoshi Miki's even sillier but rather more urban Turtles Are Surprisingly Fast Swimmers. Instead, Yoshida's fantastic cast and understated yet colourful cinematography create a film that is much straighter and poignant than a lot of recent Asian dramas.

The acting is of the highest calibre. Eriko Sato and Aimi Satsukawa do well as duelling sisters; the film undeniably belongs to Nagasaku and Nagase. Hiromi Nagasaku's Michiko is one of the finest character creations I have seen in a contemporary Japanese film. An insanely fragile bundle of happy energy forever running to the shops and bending over backwards in order to win the approval of her husband's horrible family, Michiko is also a deeply lonely and passionate woman who pours all of her misery and heartache into hideous homunculi she makes out of old twigs and bits of wool. Frankly, I could watch Nagasaku all day and I think that her performance alone justifies the price of this DVD. Masatoshi Nagase's Shinji is also eminently watchable. A fundamentally decent guy whose desire to look after his younger sister and wife are hamstrung by dark secrets, forbidden sexual desires and a much regretted promise. Nagase spends much of the film drunk and miserable but, when he allows his true concerns to seep out; it speaks of a better life the family might have enjoyed had they had the chance to live it.

Funuke: Show Some Love, You Losers! is a gem, albeit a flawed one. At nearly two hours the film is slightly too long and pacing problems occasionally creep in making the film feel a touch baggy and directionless. The comedy is also rather problematic as the script exacts payment for every laugh it extracts from us by having something even worse happen to the characters. However, as the film is only rarely laugh-out-loud funny, the script's reactions to the jokes frequently over-shadow the jokes themselves. This creates a slightly awkward tone as the film never manages to be funny or twisted but its emotional riffs are frequently too bizarre to really feel natural and realistic. Despite these small caveats, Funuke is still an enjoyable and interesting way to spend a couple of hours. The DVD comes with a load of trailers as extras. This might interest some and it might seem to others as a bit cheeky.
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