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Review: ‘Why Don’t You Play in Hell?’ is bloody good fun (Includes first-hand account)

Not every filmmaker has attended film school. After all, instinct cannot be taught. While less frequent, there are those whose education consists of no formal instruction but watching movies and experimenting. Their passion for filmmaking is often unmatched even if the quality of their work is subpar. Why Don’t You Play in Hell? centres on a group of guerilla filmmakers who are finally given the opportunity to fulfill their high school vow to make “the greatest movie ever made.”

Honing their craft shooting staged food fights, Japan’s equivalent of the A.V. kids — a.k.a. “The Fuck Bombers” — can always be found with cameras in hand. When director Hirata (Hiroki Hasegawa) discovers Sasaki (Tak Sakaguchi) in a gang fight, he convinces him to star in his movies so can make the two-bit thug the next Bruce Lee. Cue the yellow jumpsuit. Ten years later the group is still hanging out at the same, now defunct movie house screening their latest project on VHS for no one but themselves. In the meantime, Mitsuko (Fumi Nikaidô) was a child actor who captured the nation with her cute and catchy commercial about dental hygiene. A decade later, the unruly daughter of a yakuza boss (Jun Kunimura) is still waiting for her big break. When their worlds suddenly collide, it appears the movie gods have not forsaken them. As two yakuza factions prepare for war, Hirata is prepping an amateur crew to capture it all on 35 mm and make their dreams of stardom a reality.

More than half the film is divided into separate stories with very little switching between them. With a dark and messy humour, the movie captures all the enthusiasm and drawbacks of guerilla filmmaking as well as the naïve gusto that gets them into trouble. In the case of Hirata and his team, all the world is a sound stage just waiting to be committed to celluloid. The dangers of a real battle never occur to them because they are willing to sacrifice everything for the ultimate motion picture and even real-life brutality is viewed through a lens of surrealism.

A scene from Sion Sono s  Why Don t You Play in Hell?

A scene from Sion Sono’s ‘Why Don’t You Play in Hell?’
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The gangster world is equally targeted as a realm of absurd violence and revenge, representing the title’s reference to “hell.” As a hit man (Shin’ichi Tsutsumi) sits in a literal pool of blood, he promises to one day return and seek retribution because that is the convention in such situations. Throughout the picture there are a number of gunfights resulting in gallons of bloodshed, yet there always seems to be more goons to say “Yessir! and lay down their lives — or in the case of one crew, learn the intricacies of working on a movie set — for their reigning boss.

To some extent, Mitsuko is the film’s villain; a femme fatale who destroys everyone in the name of her own ambitions and whims. She is a monstrous beauty akin to a siren, luring men to ruin. As a young girl, she made such an impression on an enemy yakuza that he still obsesses about her 10 years later. She seduces Koji (Gen Hoshino), another young man enamoured by her in his youth, into helping her. All it takes is a black stiletto dangling off her toes and he’s hooked.

A combination of a great deal of blood and humour, writer/director Sion Sono’s latest venture is a tribute to old school Japanese cinema and 35 mm film. Though it still relies on his trademark outrageousness, this movie could be his most accessible and entertaining picture yet.

Director: Sion Sono
Starring: Jun Kunimura, Fumi Nikaidô and Shin’ichi Tsutsumi

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Sarah Gopaul is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for film news, a member of the Online Film Critics Society and a Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer-approved critic.

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