More noise than signal

Dead or Alive

This review has been ‘repurposed’ from my other site, theOneliner.com

Since John Woo’s departure to Hollywood, Asian cinema has had few directors that could garner as much international attention and acclaim, but Dead or Alive‘s Miike Takashi may assume Woo’s mantle. This is one of Miike’s more obviously Heroic Bloodshed-inspired works, as what could almost be called a conventional Cop vs. Yakuza film, if it wasn’t so entirely deranged.

Within the first five and a half minutes you should know if you’re going to love this film or be unsettled by it. A bizarre montage set to some Japanese rock music featuring naked women falling from buildings, a businessman doing a line of coke so large an empty warehouse has to be used to contain it, strippers, policemen throwing women around, homosexual liaisons, subsequent knifing of homosexual, gunfights, machine-guns, shotguns, grenades, spots of the old ultraviolence, and a man eating an awful, awful lot of noodles. Five and a half minutes of any MTV editor’s worst nightmare. Five and half minutes during which time the film more than earns its 18 classification. Five and a half minutes consisting of a riot of colour, an explosion of action and no plot exposition whatsoever. Yet it’s these five and a half minutes that set the tone for the entire movie to follow, without this initial charge of kinetic energy it would be unlikely to distinguish itself from the many Better Tomorrow-alikes of this world.

If the opening wasn’t to your taste you may yet glean some enjoyment from the film. The more traditional plot of the film deals with a hardened young police lieutenant, Detective Jojima (Sho Aikawa), growing increasingly upset with the wars between the Yakuza, Chinese and the Russians. He feels the police have lost control and are helpless as the criminals are left to police themselves through killing each other. We are introduced to his wife and his daughter, who happens to require an operation to save her unborn child. This will involve a trip abroad, and cost $200,000, money Jojima does not have. Woo fans may be recalling the plot of The Killer at this point.

His opposite number in this film is Ryuichi (Riki Takeuchi); a no-nonsense gangster demanding power and money, willing to do whatever it takes to get them. In his first scene Ryuichi’s brother returns from study in America, seemingly unaware of his brother’s dealings or the source of the money for his education stateside. He becomes the closest thing to an innocent character in the movie, as can be seen by his reaction to Ryuichi’s execution of a gang member who had the audacity to try to betray him by making off with a portion of the take from a bank heist. It’s clear from the outset that the themes that pervade the serious parts of this film concern the ties of family, and Miike himself says he is mostly interested in stories where characters must help someone they love by hurting others.

The film runs into problems when trying to analyse any kind of theme as most of the serious plot points and developments are preceded or followed by something ridiculous. Detective Jojima and his partner question someone in Ryuichi’s hometown to find some information, and they happen to select a garishly dressed man in a large afro wig. The police informant who helps Jojima happens to produce bestiality porn flicks, allowing him to order his assistant to, um, stimulate the dog. He chooses not to read Voltaire to the canine.

Indeed, certain parts of this film set out intentionally to shock the audience, something Miike is famed for. As they realise Ryuichi’s gang’s intention to take over the criminal scene, the incumbent Yakuza boss finds Ryuichi’s stripper girlfriend and subjects her to a doping, a gang-raping (which thankfully we are spared) and a bathing in her own excrement (which unfortunately we are not). I’m not sure if the intent was a crude metaphor for criminals being punished and killed by the problems they themselves created, but it certainly earns the film the dubious distinction of being the only movie I’ve seen where someone is drowned in their own faeces.

It appears the shock value was upped in particular for this movie after the production company signed both Takeuchi and Aikawa to the project – being two of Japanese direct to video’s greatest stars would have pretty much guaranteed success for the project and the producers more or less lost interest in the film after that, which was a source of disappointment and consternation for Miike, who then decided to make the script a little less conventional than would be expected for a film of this type. Might it be argued that this is in fact the logical conclusion of what Woo started? With spiraling bodycounts, will the only way to provoke any audience response be to go for the jugular and disgust a large percentage, probably close to all of the audience?

The actual plot itself follows more conventional lines when these bizarre interjections cease. Jojima’s need for cash corrupts him into taking money from the Yakuza. Ryuichi’s machinations lead to a stunning set piece at a Triad-Yakuza dinner to celebrate their newly negotiated alliance which is short lived, as is the remaining lives of these gangsters. It is at this point the film earns instant classic status in my mind for the ruthless gunning down of a chap in a chicken suit. The resultant showers of feathers can be seen throughout the rest of the scene. As this ‘ballet of bullets’ (copyright John Woo) ends, Ryuichi is saved from a certain swording by his brother. Jojima’s partner stumbles in on this and is killed, taking out Ryuichi’s brother.

The grasp the main characters have on their respective worlds slips away quickly, and fairly soon after the film leads to it’s climax, which really has to be seen to be believed. Any other film would be absolutely ruined by this, and if you weren’t enjoying those first five and a half minutes you certainly won’t appreciate this. As detailed in Chris Campion’s film notes, Miike has only half jokingly suggested that as these were two of the biggest stars in Japanese video the audiences would not accept a conventional ending. And this ending certainly dispenses with conventional narrative. I wouldn’t want to spoil it for you, but in my opinion it is worth the cost of the disc itself.

Miike has an eye for framing and use of colour. The vibrancy of the initial scenes is kept throughout, and as this is a gangster movie there are plenty of shots of slow-mo walking down the street with shades and full-length leather jackets, lots of shots of Ryuichi’s back and slow turning around. Visually, the film rarely disappoints. The soundtrack however does little to distinguish itself and overall is weak. Not being able to speak Japanese is always a drawback when trying to judge the acting performances, certainly no-one stood out as looking weak or out of their league.

How to judge this film? As a conventional Yakuza vs. Cop story it would probably have to fail, there is just too much weird stuff happening at the time the plot should be growing more serious. It could almost be judged as a comedy, there is a fair amount of slapstick violence here. It’s hard to judge anything as existing purely to shock. Miike himself would not rate this film as his best, and overall the effect is a little haphazard. Those seeking an introduction to his works may be advised to seek out the more gangster oriented violence of Ichi the Killer or the far more conventional Audition. However, why should only conventional films be described as great? Cinematic boundaries were made to be pushed, surely.