Drunk on B-movie love, Kaizo Hayashi’s gumshoe homage The Most Terrible Time in My Life offers welcome evidence in the post-Austin Powers 2 age of nth-degree reflexivity that the art of retro-kitsch plunder doesn’t have to be mere necrophilia. Made in 1993, this black-and-white CinemaScope curio boasts an impeccable pedigree: It reaches back not only to classic noir but (more so) to nouvelle-vague attitude-fests and to the nuttily anarchic yakuza variants cranked out by Japanese studios throughout the ’60s, most famously by polymorphous genrefucker Seijun Suzuki. Hayashi’s protagonist is a Yokohama private eye and onetime juvenile delinquent called Maiku “Mike” Hama (his real name, he insists). His office doubles as the projection booth of a repertory theater (where, in a title-providing incidental, The Best Years of Our Lives is playing), and the clerk downstairs browbeats Maiku’s clients into buying tickets, greeting their protests with harrumphing incomprehension: “If you don’t see movies, you’re finished.”
Maiku, it’s safe to say, not only sees movies but commits them to memory. As played by art-movie displacement icon Masatoshi Nagase (who drifted through Memphis in Mystery Train, Hong Kong in Autumn Moon, Iceland in Cold Fever), our hero—with his nifty threads, lacquered hair, perfectly angled cigarette, and sunglasses at night—is an endearingly loopy vision of monochrome cool. Driving around in a shiny vintage Metropolitan, spurred on by a bachelor-pad bongos-and-brass soundtrack, Maiku works hard at a Spillane-worthy exterior, though it crumbles with amusing ease and regularity. The poor klutz sheepishly endures all manner of physical and verbal abuse—from low-life tough guys, a growling-cop nemesis, his demented mentor (a cameo by Seijun Suzuki regular Shishido Jo), even his teenage sister. (The director studied to be a detective, and the film comes with a puzzling “recommendation” from the Japan Association of Detective Agencies.)
The violence has a prominent absurdist component—when an irascible thug lops off Maiku’s finger, the severed digit has to be retrieved from a drooling mutt. But the japes eventually cede to a surprisingly sober and ruminative portrait of bloody gang warfare. Substituting male bonding for femme fatale obsession, Hayashi hinges the noirish plot on Maiku’s kinship with a seemingly naive Taiwanese waiter, who hires him to find his long-lost brother. Consequent entanglements with a ring of naturalized immigrants known as the “New Japs” allow for a pointed study of xenophobia in the multiethnic port city. Playfully deploying exaggerated angles and dramatic chiaroscuro, Hayashi—as he previously proved with the vaudeville parable Circus Boys—delights in genre pastiche. But for all its rampant cine-snob knowingness, this is, at heart, a work of infectious, unironic affection. Most Terrible Time, the first of a trilogy, redresses its solemn conclusion with the most uplifting possible coda: a trailer for The Stairway to the Distant Past, the second Maiku Hama adventure.
More sincere archaeology: With Orfeu, cinema novo pioneer Carlos Diegues takes another stab at the Orpheus myth, adapting the play by poet Vinicius de Moraes that inspired the 1959 Rio-in-Carnaval extravaganza Black Orpheus. Diegues’s admirable intent is to reclaim one of Brazil’s most enduring cultural exports and replace its touristy exoticism with a harsh, contemporary social context (the earlier film was directed by Frenchman Marcel Camus). Orfeu (played here by pop star Toni Garrido) is once again a samba composer and lady-killer whose gentle guitar strums make the sun rise, and his love for new-in-town country girl Euridice still arouses the ire of jealous women throughout the favela. But Death, some guy wearing a black leotard in Black Orpheus, is here embodied by a quietly ominous drug lord. On the soundtrack, the soothing bossa nova of the original finds a complement in a few mellifluous Caetano Veloso ballads, supplemented by an energizing blast of local hip-hop. Seemingly overawed both by the operatic pitch of the central love story and the kaleidoscopic enormity of Carnaval, Diegues’s update hovers between mythic poetry and earthbound grit; the result is an inert, drably florid spectacle.