Why Don’t You Play in Hell? Dir. Shion Sono

[Drafthouse Films; 2014]

Styles: drama, comedy, gore
Others: Himizu, Love Exposure, Day For Night

Shion Sono is without a doubt one of the most baffling filmmakers working today. His penchant for creating films that go from initial conception to final, edited pieces within a span of several weeks leaves most viewers scratching their heads, unable to square the cohesive and (usually) long films with the amount of time it took to make them. The kind of frenetic energy it takes to pull those kinds of projects off is on full display in his body of work on camera, and Why Don’t You Play in Hell? is no exception. Those familiar with Sono’s work are familiar with the variety of central ideas underpinning the madness of his other, supremely enjoyable films, the kind of ideas that are seemingly as random as the thoughts that would spring up in the head of someone capable to producing a feature-length movie FROM START TO FINISH in three weeks. However, what sets his latest effort apart is its very frank and honest appreciation and admiration of filmmaking itself, choosing to focus a large part of the film on the act of making movies, and all the joy and sorrow it contains.

As is the case with pretty much all of Sono’s films, there’s a hell of a lot going on throughout Hell’s relatively short (for Sono) runtime. Part Yakuza revenge flick, part bildungsroman, and part sort-of homage to French New Wave films like Day For Night, the movie is a cacophony of wildly disparate ideas. We’re introduced to all sorts of singular and just-under-over-the-top characters that could probably all inspire their own, separate films. Somehow Sono manages to string us along for long enough to realize the interconnectedness of all these wacky people, leading to a conclusion that’s as ridiculously gory as it is revelatory.

We first meet our protagonists (a collective of filmmakers who proudly refer to themselves as “The Fuck Bombers”) while they’re very young, attempting to film an epic kung-fu fight sequence that’s rudely interrupted by an impossibly bloody Yakuza barely able to stand up. The blending of kids and their zany filmmaking with a delirious and possibly mortally wounded grown-ass man in what could his last meaningful exchange with other people is about as surreal as it sounds, and sets the tone for a film that seamlessly blends the young filmmakers’ desire to capture visually and emotionally great moments with the people for whom those moments could mean a hell of a lot more than a really awesome sequence.

While we’re getting to know these precocious kids and experience with them the long, slow process they go through while on their way to realizing that filmmaking isn’t going to pay their bills, we’re also treated to a nearly boilerplate Yakuza revenge story. Way back in the day a mob boss’s wife was sent to prison after killing a decent amount of rival gang-members in an effort to save her young daughter (who also happens to be the star of a very popular toothpaste commercial). Of course, the mob boss has assured her that her understandably damaged now-adult daughter is still acting, and is in fact going to make a movie. Hence the connection to our young filmmakers, who see in the conflict and inevitable great battle between two huge gangs a pretty awesome real-life fight sequence to capture on film. Given all sorts of awesome equipment by the aging mob boss, the group sets about crafting a sublimely ridiculous epic battle between the two rival factions. As we experience the young filmmaking collective reveling in their access to the decent lighting, sound, and camera equipment, it’s hard to not see shades of Sono himself in their exuberant faces.

Sono’s particular genius lies in the unabashed and almost completely out of place joy that permeates his work, even (and especially) in the midst of some truly horrendous circumstances. While some of his earlier films might have more thematically interesting elements surrounding this eerie joyfulness, the last 20 minutes of Why Don’t You Play in Hell? play out like some kind of twisted ballet whose mise-en-scène consists mainly of severed limbs and an impossible amount of obviously fake blood. All the while, these plucky young filmmakers immerse themselves as much as possible in the carnage, trying to get as much good footage as possible to go make the coolest movie ever made. Sono captures the exhilarating aspects of making a movie like no one else. His latest film is, in the best way possible, one of the most feel-good movies people who don’t like feel-good movies will ever have the pleasure of watching.

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