Thursday 20 February 2020

They thrive by night: "First Love"

After the grandiose gestures of his previous UK theatrical release, 2017's period samurai epic Blade of the Immortal, the Japanese maverick Takashi Miike has returned to B-movie basics. The raw ingredients of Miike's new film First Love would have done for any number of post-War programmers, quickies or hackjobs: we're introduced, with breathless economy, to a dying prizefighter, a drug-addled working girl-in-distress, and a corrupt detective, all of whom will become caught up in open warfare between Japanese, Chinese and Filipino gangsters. The collision permits Miike to extend his longstanding fascination with human violence. We're barely moments into First Love when a swift (upper)cut carries us from the boxing ring to a neighbouring alley where some unfortunate is having his head removed from the rest of his body - and it's a typically Miikean touch that the murder weapon should then be stashed beneath a novelty golf club cover. For a while, though, this will be the film's only flourish, as Miike and writer Masa Nakamura instead set out muted, nocturnal interactions - often at actual intersections - which don't work out as intended. Here, you sense this filmmaker feeling his way back in the direction of what was practically a founding B-picture trope: the masterplan that goes rapidly and bloodily south.

By contrast, First Love's own plotting is intricate - setting multiple threads running through Tokyo's back and side-streets - but ultimately ties together. On some level, it feels like Miike's perversion of the Before Sunrise meet-cute: it tails after two relatively innocent kids - mournful pugilist Leo (Masataka Kubota) and Monica (Sakurako Konishi), a young woman sold into sex slavery - as they're thrown together and get to know one another, then wonders how this process would be affected if one of them was undergoing cold turkey, and if they had three-quarters of the city's underworld on their tail. The movie has at least one eye on romcom formula: it takes place on the night of February 14th, if I'm not mistaken, and the final third obliges these lovers to (briefly) go separate ways before a reunion. Yet the film's pleasure derives from the snags and twists Nakamura and Miike engineer into this scenario. Among the pair's pursuers is a hallucination Monica has of her abusive father, rendered as a gyrating ghoul draped in a filthy bedsheet and clad in tight white underpants. It's a film of amusing reveals: the unexpected emergence of a secondary character's hitherto unseen housemate at a life-or-death plot juncture, the stirring of a dormant contract killer who whips back their hair to demonstrate she is, in fact, a she. (As in his international breakthrough work, 1999's Audition, Miike permits no sentimentality whatsoever with regard to the so-called fairer sex: clock the madam who lures in her assailant with a vagina-wettened finger, in order to follow up with a swift kick to the guy's gonads.)

With the exception of a brief burst of animation inserted late on to cover a stunt the production clearly didn't have the budget for, First Love never really looks like much, partly because its characters are obliged to operate in low-rent spaces under cover of night. And even with its prodigious narrative leaps and switchbacks, there remain stretches where everybody involved appears to be circling pretty familiar territory. What's covered, however, proves far less significant to one's overall enjoyment than how it's covered: at breakneck, rat-a-tat pace, and with a close-to-cartoonish level of surface invention, such that, at the last, First Love can even pull off something appreciably new and energetic within the generically tatty confines of a hardware store shootout. Miike retains that quality that seasoned B-movie producers (and viewers) will always be drawn towards and captivated by: when he's close to fully engaged - as he seems to be here - the ideas he fires across the frame have the same effect as the bullets do on his yakuza or Leo's punches have on his opponents, knocking a scene off its axis, spinning a film around 180 degrees, and reorienting whole genres in completely different directions. Some seventy or eighty years after those ideas first started popping into the left-of-centre cinema's head, that's still exciting to witness.

First Love is now playing in selected cinemas, and streaming via Curzon Home Cinema.

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