These days, it seems like every bonkers film is trying to outdo the last bonkers film in just how bonkers they can be. With film production costs dropping and technology more available to the more insane and less commercial of minds, filmmakers can almost do whatever the hell they want. Well, there are bonkers films, and then there’s ‘Why Don’t You Play In Hell?’, a Japanese cult hit that might be ridiculous enough to carve out a genre all of its own.
A yakuza boss (Jun Kunimura) promised his wife, who has been in prison for ten years, that he would make a movie star out of their daughter Mitsuko (Fumi Nikaidô). Yet with ten days left until she’s released, the film still isn't finished, and he’s forced to turn to a local cinema club of budding young filmmakers to help him make the film and keep his promise, and take down a rival yakuza clan in the process.
It’s a ridiculous concept, but that isn’t even the half of it. ‘Why Don’t You Play In Hell?’ is an unashamed love letter to cinema and the spirit of filmmaking, but one that refuses to adhere to any laws of logic or style or taste. It’s almost impossible to describe with any level of accuracy; every moment you think you’ve cracked it, the film throw itself into a whole new direction, mixing extreme violence with bawdy comedy, over-acting and melodrama, shot low-fi but with a knowing awareness of itself. The camera spins wildly, the editing makes little-to-no sense and the performances are pitched way above what you think would be humanly possible.
All this makes it sound like the film would be a total mess, but writer-director Sion Soto exerts a tremendous amount of creative control. Films like this rely heavily on total commitment to a stylistic conceit, and everyone involved is totally onboard from the get-go. It’s also intensely Japanese, and anyone with even a causal knowledge of Japanese cinema will be able see the traditions Soto is playing with, linking back to the insane psychedelic fever dreams of films like ‘Hausu’ (1977). Every atom of this film is geared towards everyone on screen and everyone watching should have as much fun as possible, and while this denies it a certain level of sophistication, it doesn’t give care one bit.
What lets the film down in the end, beyond the specificity of its style, is its excessive length. At two hours, it all overstays its welcome, and could probably have benefited from a swifter, tighter running time. By the time we reach the epic yakuza battle at the end, you’ve become so exhausted from frenzied insanity overload that the whole thing loses its impact.
It’s a ridiculous concept, but that isn’t even the half of it.
Saying ‘Why Don’t You Play In Hell?’ is a love it or hate it film is probably the understatement of the year. This is a film dealing exclusively with extremes, pushing style and taste and basic human logic beyond what you thought possible. It’s a loony cinematic fever dream, dripping with audacity and bravery. If you don’t accept the conceit or the joke of the film, you’re going to detest every second. If you do though, you might find yourself in a cinema buff’s giddy movie-loving heaven. This has cult classic plastered all over it.
PICTURE & SOUND
Madman have only released the film on DVD, but weirdly, this actually works very much in its favour. The standard definition 2.35:1 transfer actually enhances the intentionally low-fi quality of the film, denying us the level of clarity we expect from high definition but without sacrificing its vivid colours. The Dolby Digital 5.1 track functions in the same way - the lack of perfect audio fidelity adds rather than detracts, with everything well-balanced, and complemented by English subtitles.
The only feature included on the disc is the theatrical trailer, but really, what on earth could you possibly include that could ever explain what the hell you just watched or how the hell they did it?