September 12, 2002

Cornell Cinema

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We all remember our junior-high years with a mixture of bittersweet emotions. It’s a confusing time, full of school bullies, loneliness, prostitution, rape, and often murder. OK, well maybe most of us had teenage experiences a little better than that, but Shunji Iwai’s striking, shocking film All About Lily Chou-Chou explores young lives gone out of control, and in the process touches on the sense of alienation that all teenagers feel to some extent.

The movie is an epic exploration of teenage life, following young Yuichi Hasumi from the ages of 13 through 15. Yuichi is terminally shy and submissive, and at every point of the movie he is bullied and beaten around by the stronger kids who he latches on to as “friends.” In one disturbing scene, Yuichi is beaten by his supposed friends, then forced to masturbate while they all watch — the incident seals Yuichi’s fate as the object of constant ridicule.

He finds solace from his miserable existence only in an Internet chat site he runs, dedicated to the mysterious, spiritual singer Lily Chou-Chou, where he finds that the only people who understand and sympathize with him are faceless Internet personalities who go by unrevealing handles like “blue cat” and “Bear.” Even his fascination with Lily brings heartbreak, though — he is caught shoplifting her newest CD because bullies are always taking his money, and later the CD is broken before he’s even listened to it once.

The scourge — and central focus — of Yuichi’s junior-high troubles is a boy named Hoshino, who started as Yuichi’s best real life friend before a summer brush with death permanently drove the pair apart. Hoshino’s disintegration from an intelligent, shy boy into the callous, tortured monster he becomes is both subtle and terrifying to watch. Hoshino forces a young girl into prostitution — making Yuichi a sort of pimp — and later rapes the object of Yuichi’s affection while the tortured boy waits outside.

Director Iwai’s hand and vision are all over this marvelous film. It is beautifully shot with a somewhat fractured realism that occasionally crosses over into documentary style, as when characters speak directly to the camera like witness on the TV news. At other times, Iwai’s bizarre sense of composition heightens the feelings of alienation experienced by the characters — both Yuichi and Hoshino are depicted sympathetically, despite their diametrically opposite personalities, and every character in the movie seems to be living separate from everyone else.

The cinematography is gorgeous throughout the movie; shots of Hoshino and Yuichi standing alone in a rice field listening to Lily’s CDs enhance the impression of their separate love for the singer, and stress how their stories are developing in parallel to each other. Often, Iwai adopts a fast-paced style that approaches the fast, crazy cuts of modern music videos, approximating the feeling of being an outcast in Japanese culture. The juxtaposition of online text messages also adds to the clutter, as messages type out on the screen accompanied by keyboard clicks and flashes of computer screens blinking “reload.” The overall effect is engrossing, and the imagery of the film would be mesmerizing even without the context of the script.

This film is incredibly complex, and probably needs at least two or three viewings to straighten everything out. I still haven’t quite figured it out myself — all I know is, it’s an amazing movie, full of so much emotion and despair that it left me completely gutted by the end. All About Lily Chou-Chou is an unforgettable, original vision that cuts deep into the roots of what makes us human, what drives our dreams, and what can change our lives forever.

Archived article by Ed Howard