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Wild Life
cast: Kosuke Toyohara, Yuna Natsuo, Mickey Curtis, Jun Kunimura, and Akiko Izumi

director: Shinji Aoyama

103 minutes (unrated) 2004
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Artsmagic DVD Region 1 retail

RATING: 6/10
reviewed by Richard Bowden
Wild Life is a relatively early film from director Shinji Aoyama, whose best-known work in the west has hitherto been Eureka (2000), together with the grisly horror Embalming (aka: Enbamingu, 1999). Response to Aoyama's characteristic style varies considerably, from those who consider it deep, profound even, whilst noting the issues he 'imports' into genre pieces, and those who lose patience with his deliberate pacing (Eureka runs for almost four hours) pointing to his willingness to play journeyman director, casually taking on projects from various sources. This is not necessarily a criticism, as Japan's most prolific contemporary director, as well as the one attracting positive critical interest, Takashi Miike, has also shown a lack of inhibition. Aoyoma's ethos however is rather different to that of his controversial colleague. His softly spoken, often eccentric characters and personal attitude to cinema is more reminiscent of Jim Jarmusch, although the Japanese director himself cites Godard and Ford as being among his influencers. Those familiar with his native contemporaries will also cite Kiyoshi Kurosawa, a friend of the director, and whose distinctive films can display a similar deliberate, enigmatic quality.

The present film is ostensibly a yakuza drama. Washed up boxer Hiroki makes his living as a 'master nailer' - servicing pachinko machines - who leads a solitary and regimented private life. His main loyalty is to his boss Tsuruma, now under threat from yakuza gangs who threaten his market. Also involved in events are a former co-worker of Hiroki called Mizuguchi, now turned small scale crook, and Rei, his boss' daughter with whom he conducts an awkward wooing. When both Mizuguchi and Tsuruma go missing, Hiroki is pressured by the gangsters, and also targeted by the police on the whereabouts of a certain envelope, believed left in his care and which he initially thinks contains drugs. Obliged to emerge from his emotional shell and re-engage with the world, Hiroki's loyalty to his boss and responses to the daughter drives matters to an inevitable showdown...

Such a description of the plot barely does as it justice, as what really distinguishes Wild Life is the treatment such commonplace genre concerns receive. Ultimately, it is the viewer's response to such unorthodox storytelling that decides just how well the narrative works. The fragmented experience offered by Aoyama's film resembles one of the jigsaws laying uncompleted in Hiroki's apartment than a regular narrative, as his co-written screenplay, in the words of one critic, "plays out like a memory, in short pieces, linked by a peculiar dream-like logic." Dream-like is right, as a lot of Wild Life would be confusing without some determined concentration and imagination on the part of the viewers - a requirement rarely demanded from Hollywood these days, the adventurousness of which must be applauded. Headed up into named chapters, within them the expected linear train of events is disrupted so that the viewer receives regular detours into the past, as well as multiple story threads and interrelationships to contend with.

Some have suggested that Wild Life's structural playfulness intends to parody the crime genre in which the director is working. In classic film noir, fractured, nightmarish narratives work to suggest moral confusion. Aoyama's strategy appears to be, by breaking down and drawing out aspects of his plot, creating a plot where the genre elements can practically be discarded in favour of his sour-sweet contemplation of other realities - those perhaps of loneliness, loyalty and dislocation.

Unfortunately of lot of this is made hard going by a story the elements of which, chopping and shunting notwithstanding, remain resolutely conventional. Aoyama (who co-adapted the script from an original novel) lightens things up with some welcome, if slight, whimsical humour, but its really not enough. One is reminded of the films by Sabu, another of his contemporaries, who has brought to his own series of genre works a mischievous irony, transforming standard material. Aoyama makes much heavier work of it. Horoki for instance, is an interesting and enigmatic enough character, but alas one who never really comes alive, until he called upon to utilise his boxing skills in self-defence. It's a defining moment, but one which occurs too far in the storyline to sustain the interest of all but the most devoted viewer. At the centre of another interesting scene there's also a gay cop, sweet on the hero, who could have been, with profit, been dragged further out of the closet. These moments are in relatively short supply in what is rather a glum affair and, at worst, seem like distractions rather than any genuine enlivening of the plot. In short, Wild Life's lead is not eccentric enough, and his infatuation not passionate enough; the complicated plot is not noir-ish enough and the yakuza thugs just not menacing enough to make much impact. There's a sense that too many of the supporting characters are just ciphers to the director's wish to suggest something profound (witness Hiroki's "Am I falling or rising?" speech in the last part of the film) out of relatively mundane, if unduly complicated, circumstances.

The result is that the viewers' attention begins to wander. Fortunately Wild Life's fluid cinematography is excellent; for instance Aoyama's camera a couple of times circles his principals in a way suggesting those shifting elements laying at the centre of his story, while elsewhere the director also masks character entries and exits through camera movement a technique that, economically, sets the viewer subtly on edge. Such fine work makes one wish that the Artsmagic release did the visual presentation better justice, as the anamorphic transfer is a little disappointing, with some undue darkness and softness of the image.

Extras include an 18-minute interview with Shinji Aoyama, discussing his influences and also the yakuza genre as well background info on making Wild Life. The other principal extra is an audio commentary with Midnight Eye's Jasper Sharp, who makes a good effort in putting the film in context and fashions the best out of any shortcomings. Sharp's commentary sounds a little unrehearsed, although this is not a major distraction.
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