Sion Sono’s Bad Film is truly a movie that should not exist. Shot in the mid 90s on Hi8 video, the film ran out of money and lay unfinished for well over a decade. If it were anybody else’s project, it would likely have stayed that way forever, a project lost to time. But Sion Sono is… well, the kind of guy who would make Bad Film, so he decided that it was high time the film got finished. The Sion Sono of 2012, creator of Love Exposure, Cold Fish, and many others, took to the 150 hours of footage directed by the Sion Sono of 1995 and pulled from it 161 minutes of bizarre insanity.
I am so glad it exists.
[For the next few weeks, we will be covering the 2013 New York Asian Film Festival and the 2013 Japan Cuts Film Festival, which together form one of the largest showcases of Asian cinema in the world. For our NYAFF 2013 coverage, click here. For Japan Cuts 2013 coverage, click here.]
Director: Sion Sono
Starring: Tokyo GAGAGA
Seeing Bad Film in a theater feels like a joke. It’s not a movie that should be in a theater; it should be seen on an old VHS tape found in an attic somewhere. It’s footage from 1995, but it seems so much older. It truly feels like a lost film, looking more like restored footage of a century-old print (although not so scratched up) than something made in my lifetime. Some of that is inherent in the scaling up of the Hi8 format. Hi8 simply isn’t a theater-ready format. Its effective digital resolution is 560×480, which isn’t even Standard Definition (a term I haven’t thought of in years). When projected as an HDCAM, which has a resolution of 1440×1080, the footage (even upscaled during post-production), it just doesn’t look very good, and that’s putting it gently.
It’s impossible to truly get lost in a world as ugly as Bad Film‘s. All of the technical issues add up to a film that never lets the audience forget it’s a film. Whether it’s the existence of other cameras and microphones that are periodically on screen (something that is hilariously given justification in the narrative) or the fact that the dialogue is barely audible, and the periodic bouts of English don’t have subtitles, it is the very definition of artificial. For 161 minutes, I felt like I was the butt of a joke. When the picture cut out for about ten seconds about halfway through while the tape was changed, it was a perfect moment. Was it over? Nope, guess not.
Because you know what? I have never had an experience like watching Bad Film in a crowded theater. Ever. And I will never have that experience again. Bad Film is truly unique, a one-of-a-kind project. Making comparisons across genres is basically the worst thing ever, but it’s kind of like the Deadly Premonition of movies: a technically flawed work of art that is the execution of a vision of a deranged Japanese mind, and it’s something I wouldn’t want to change in the slightest. That makes it difficult to talk about, because it might read like sarcasm when I exclaim that the presence of a time-code on a particularly fascinating scene in the film is amazing, but it isn’t. It’s completely amazing.
And this isn’t some ironic hipster bullshit. As I said before (and will almost certainly say again) Bad Film should not exist. Not as something with a 2013 North American premiere… and really not ever. When it ran out of money, it should have died. But instead it sat there degrading further and further until its creator came to revive it like Frankenstein’s monster. And it is truly beautiful. It works because it doesn’t work. It’s beautiful because it’s ugly. Bad Film is a contradiction in all its parts. It has to be seen to be believed, and if it is seen it will be loved.
Bad Film has a cast of hundreds. A collaboration of the 2000-person performance art collective Tokyo GAGAGA, formed by Sion Sono in 1993, the sheer scale of it fascinating. Everything was shot guerilla-style, no permissions or passes. They showed up in a train with dozens of “gang members” and cameras and shot their footage. The passers-by look at the groups and the cameras in confusion, once again reminding everybody that it is, in fact, just a movie. Or maybe it’s a documentary, or a mockumentary at least. Several scenes were clearly shot just once, like the several-hundred person “gang fight” in the middle of a busy intersection. If it featured interviews with the characters, it could actually make the claim that it is a mockumentary. There are scenes of characters just being dumb (trying to deposit a pig’s head at a bank? hilarious), and maybe that’s the intended effect. To make it feel like a real thing.
During the film’s most impressive moments (the aforementioned gang fight, the burning food cart, etc.), the technical issues became even more apparent and more bizarre. It feels like a movie that has resources behind it, and it feels like it should be more professionally shot (on 8mm film at least). All it really has is manpower, and a whole lot of it.
Bad Film‘s storyline is racially, sexually, and politically charged. In the near future of 1997, tensions between the Japanese and Chinese are running hot: A Chinese gang is trying to take charge of a particular area in a Japanese city, and the Japanese are not happy about it. It’s your typical turf warfare story, although most turf warfare stories don’t involve Japanese men shouting into megaphones about how foreign penises will caught massive vaginal damage to Japanese women. Nor do most turf warfare stories have sexual factions. You see, in this film the homosexuals are different, and they have a pro-gay agenda that comes at the expense of the heterosexuals. It’s a Southern, white American male’s worst nightmare, and it’s beautifully rendered. The primary manifestation of this agenda is the price of weaponry. For some reason, all weapon purchases are run through a lesbian weapon ring, and they sell their wares more cheaply to other gays.
There’s also a bit of a Romeo & Juliet story going on, except it’s more like Juliet & Juliet, as lesbian love becomes the singular force that cannot be pulled apart by race, gang affiliation, or language barrier. Who needs verbal communication when there are bubbles to be blown? (That’s not some weird sexual euphemism. The two of them fall in love over blowing bubbles.)
All of these plot threads are thrown together to make a film that feels epic in scope despite it being confined to a relatively small area. Its length helps. Only 14 minutes shorter than The Godfather, there is plenty of time for betrayals and murders, fist fights and gunfights, and all of those other things someone might want from a film of this sort.
Except that I wanted it to go on forever. Long before the fourth (and final) act began, I realized that once this film ended I would have to go back to the rest of my life. The lights would come up, I’d have to leave the theater, and then return to see Hentai Kamen. I didn’t want that to happen. So even as I lost some interest in the characters and what they were doing (although the action ramps up pretty heavily later on), I couldn’t let it end. Any shorter than 161 minutes and I would have felt cheated. Even if I was never lost in Bad Film‘s world, I was invested in it. I was invested in the poor production values and the batshit insane narrative; I was on the edge of my seat waiting to see where everything would go and how it would get there. For better or worse, I was in it, and I was loving every moment of it. If my mind wandered for a moment, the next crazy thing would happen and I would snap right back to attention.
I haven’t mentioned the humor (though I hope it’s been implied), but the movie is hilarious. In 2013, it should be. I don’t know if it was intended to be in 1995. There’s a sincerity to the bald leader of the Japanese gang imitating a monkey and blocking traffic as an insult to the leader of the Chinese gang, and one of the most legitimately violent shots I’ve ever seen (dozens of people are actually smacked around) is done without any humor at all. There’s a lot of manipulation that can be done with 150 hours of footage (and some proper voiceover and music). But whether its tone now was intended then is irrelevant. This may have been created in a bygone era, but it’s a modern film (similar to Apocalypse Now: Redux, except there is a point of comparison for the changed directorial intent there). It’s a perfect sendup to the new age’s Remix Culture, and I would love to see this idea taken in the future.
I’ve spoken in specifics here, but I’ve barely scratched the surface. There is so much to talk about, but it would ruin some of that magic. If you can see Bad Film, you must. If you can see it in a theater, pay through the nose to do so. You will never have another experience like it. It’s such a different film, one that could never be made again (and probably should never have been made at all).
So see it. Love it. Praise it. Worship at the altar of Sion Sono, because he deserves it. Bad Film truly is a masterpiece.