By Thom Ernst
That’s saying something for Miike who has been known to jolt audiences with his brand of absurd, sometimes weird sadomasochistic violence and on-screen cruelty. Miike fans will remember the complimentary ‘barf-bags’ that were handed out at the TIFF Midnight Madness premiere of Ichi the Killer (2001).
Granted, the barf-bags were nothing more than a publicity stunt, but many who saw the film didn’t think the gesture was necessarily unfounded. By comparison, First Love is a restrained bit of filmmaking from a director not all that concerned with restraint. And though the squeamish needn’t fear of anything that would send them running from the theatre, First Love still has enough of a body count and creative ways to keep that body count coming, to appease anyone’s blood lust.
Miike starts things off in a suitably grim and darkly amusing way by seamlessly merging a boxing ring knock-out with a back-alley execution. It’s inevitable that these two opposing scenes and the characters in them will eventually collide, it’s just a matter of how, why and when. Not only does Miike keep the audience guessing, but he also increases the ante by tossing in various other characters in scenes that seem equally unrelated. There is no question that a good Miike audience is an attentive audience. But even if things feel convoluted at the top, there is enough visceral energy to distract until the pieces start falling in place.
First Love is the story of two young people, Leo and Julie (Masataka Kubota and Becky), who meet by chance one miserable night in Tokyo. She is a meth-addicted prostitute, stalked by the apparition of an abusive father and he is a boxer whose doctor just handed him a death sentence.
That scenario provides enough conflict to carry a movie for a solid 108 minutes. But if First Love were to settle on telling a tale of a flawed and hopeless romantic, then it wouldn’t be a Miike film. But it is a Miike film, so whatever romance awaits Julie and Leo will first have to survive a night of betrayal, vengeance, and murder full of gangsters, corrupt cops, and hired assassins.
One of Miike’s strengths as director is his ability to twist a murderous altercation into a deeply black farce. This is no more apparent than in Shôta Sometani’s role as Kase, the angelic faced gangster who aspires to rise in the ranks of the underworld by stealing his boss’ drugs. Kase’s nonchalant transformation from accidental assassin to a cold-blooded killer is one of darkest comedic turns in recent cinema.
Miike is a prodigious filmmaker who has directed more than 100 feature films. In the course of his career, he has tackled most genres from gangsters to western to horror to comedy. His films have managed to shock, offend, amuse and entertain audiences. He has been lauded and he has been banned. And yet never, has Miike created a film that is as much as a crowd-pleasure as First Love. The movie is just plain good fun.
First Love. Directed by Takashi Miike. Starring Becky, Masataka Kubota and Shota Sometani. Opens Friday, October 4 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.