Tragical Mystery Tours


To judge by the culture we see, the capitalist fields of East Asia—predominantly Japan, Taiwan, and Korea—are enduring magma slides of teenage angst-anomie, and Shunji Iwai’s two-and-a-half-hour ballade, All About Lily Chou-Chou, may be the ‘geist’s Quadrophenia. Channeling youthful discontent isn’t as easy as it used to be before technology provided an infinite underground, but Iwai fashions pensive cyber-lyricism out of a new generation’s instruments of introversion: In lieu of narration, his film is counter-accented with the typed-out dialogue of fan chat rooms. Iwai’s teens can only express themselves online, forming a worshipful chorus at the altar of the fictitious Tori Amos/Enya-esque diva of the title. Meanwhile, the story wanders like a brooding punk, and the camera succumbs to swooping perspectives, hyper-green grasslands, dust devils, desolate consumer aisles, and spasms of home-video horror.

Iwai’s ellipticality can be pretty stingy with narrative cues—flashbacks are scant signified, and jump cuts leave out massive amounts of motivating incident—but Lily Chou-Chou is a precision-made mystery tour, and possibly the loveliest film ever shot on high-def video. (You’d be hard-pressed to find rogue pixels, even though Iwai seems to have exposed the whole movie at daybreak.) Primary protagonist Yuichi (Hayato Ichihara) is a 15-year-old wallflower completely submerged in “Lilyphilia,” which he further promulgates by mastering a fan site and ruminating upon his idol’s enigmatic lyrics and relationship with her Force-like “ether.” The chat—sourced out of thousands of posts accumulated on Iwai’s Lily Web site, which predated the script—is communal and needy, but soon enough Yuichi is pushed from his hibernation by another gawky outcast (Shugo Oshinari), who suddenly matures into a gang leader and pimp.

The dramatics don’t matter as much as Iwai’s sullen atmospherics: The recurrent and hardly original image of a miserable teen standing in the wilderness listening on his earphones acquires a fiercely iconic melancholy. Iwai prefers to observe from a distance, and he has a taste for disjunctive visuals: back-road bike rides shot in green night-vision, a uniformed schoolgirl prostitute hosing herself down in broad daylight, a post-collision tableau of wild dog and scattered pineapples. Iwai could be accused of circumventing his saga’s nastier aspects (rape and murder among them), but Lily Chou-Chou is itself an overripe pop song, mourning the despoiling tragedies of pre-adulthood and the infuriating inadequacy of nostalgia. Seen here last fall at the New York Film Festival and scored by Takashi Kobayashi (freely adapting Debussy much of the time), it’s a uniquely lonely film, and one of the year’s most memorable.

No slouch in the epic-DV sweepstakes, Julio Medem’s Sex and Lucía is truly bizarre—beautifully executed and as rampantly randy as straight European movies come, if you can overlook a contrived and shoddily conceived tragic-death plot pivot that goes a mile toward souring the hormonal detonations. Vaulting back and forth over a few years, the film focuses on Lucia (the Penélope-ish Paz Vega), an energetic Madrid hotsie who falls for hunky novelist Lorenzo (Tristán Ulloa) and grieves his loss by returning to an underpopulated tourist island he spoke about. For the first semi-porn half or so, Vega and Ulloa juice up Medem’s script with a royally convincing fuck-vibe and a pair of redoubtably impish smiles. But once the story begins unfolding to include a love child, her sexy baby-sitter, the baby-sitter’s ex-porn-queen mother, and a rottweiler, credibility begins to shake and tumble. An adept mood maker, Medem strains madly for cosmic alliances, fairy-tale imagery, and fated coincidences, but he triumphs only with two hot bodies, a cluttered apartment, and a Shower Massage.