by Jason Suzuki
"Directors and producers are all lowlifes!" reads the poster for Eiji Uchida's follow up to 2013's Greatful Dead (he also made the fun throw-back to 60's new wave cinema The Last Days of the World in 2011). The characters depicted in the film live up to this tagline in the film's completely unsentimental take on the business of making films. Even when its characters try to be sentimental about it, it's still disgusting and devoid of heart. Filmmaking is the venereal disease that they caught and can't shake. It's this avoidance of teary eyed plight of the artist narrative trappings that makes Uchida's film such a great watch.
Tetsuo (Kiyohiko Shibukawa) is at first the titular lowlife (this is before we are introduced to the others who will go on to share the description). Having completed one film many years ago which was a minor success, he has stagnated. He lives with his mom and his sister and regularly meets with actresses in order to just sleep with them. The film opens on the morning after of one of these "auditions." He gets denied morning sex but the actress gives Tetsuo her CV. As soon as she leaves he drops his pants and starts masturbating to it. In a way this scene will encapsulate the film: this type of filmmaking linked with sex and onanism.
The way Tetsuo avoids getting a job is through his Cinema Club. For a monthly fee, on top of the entrance fee, members will receive training from Tetsuo, who they must call director, and hope that the next production will start soon. His right hand man Mamoru (Yoshihiko Hosoda) creates POV porn to help fund Tetsuo's lifestyle, also believing in the man who once made a good movie.
Tetsuo has a poster of Easy Rider up in his room and claps his hands before a picture of Cassavetes. This is all part of the spirit of remaining "true" to his indie soul that he has somewhat perverted but has roots in the idealism that Tetsuo must have once had about the movies and in which there still remains a little in him. The two newest members of his cinema club: an aspiring screenwriter Ken (Shugo Oshinari) and aspiring actress Minami (Maya Okano) reignite something within him to start actively trying to make a film again. It becomes not just a battle to get financing but also one with himself and the lowlife lifestyle he has maintained for so many years since his debut. All of it will come back to bite him.
With Ken and Minami you get the wide eyed optimism that Tetsuo and the others will try so hard to break. They are both talented which unfortunately some of the Cinema Club are not. In one acting exercise Tetsuo has the members each pantomime how they would respond to stepping on shit. Some don't emote at all, while Kyoko (Chika Uchida), a veteran member of the Cinema Club, gets caught up in whether it is dog shit or human shit, or whether it is shit or poo. Minami breaks her soft demeanor to unleash rage about stepping in the imaginary shit. But now that she has entered this world that rage and bitterness will soon start to take hold and it's one of the most engrossing parts of the film to watch her transformation unfold after each disappointing encounter whether its Tetsuo or established filmmaker Kano (Kanji Furutachi). Successful or not, everyone acts the same. As Kyoko puts it when she is determining who to sleep with, it's all about what the personal gain is. On a side note, shout out to the actress who decided that being happy and jumping around in it was a viable response to stepping in shit. Tetsuo's dismissal shows he's more interested in having new flesh rather than utilizing idiosyncrasies and alternative behavior.
Films about filmmaking seem to foreground the craft of the film itself, sort of like how you become more attentive to a film's score the moment the composer's name appears in the opening credits. There is one scene in particular that exemplifies the craft on display in the film despite its urgency given the low budget and short filming schedule. In a one on one session between Tetsuo and Minami, Tetsuo gets Minami to switch between love and hate. She's just not cutting it when it gets to the hate part. His advances and gropes unleash what he was looking for. Satisfied, he leaves her alone in the rehearsal room. The camera starts to shift and adjust noticeably. Whereas the cinematography of films like Babel make the handheld style visibly recognizable in a way to foreground realism while in reality foregrounding its lack of thought, what Uchida's use of it does it punctuate the scene. Tetsuo's method worked and it will begins Minami's disillusionment with the industry. It's an expert way to make you pay attention and signify the importance of a moment.
The film's creation is in stark juxtaposition to the attempts to create depicted in the film. Using Kickstarter to help fund the completion of the film, which already had a great cast (Denden appears as a shady producer with a schlock past and present) and high production values for such a low budget film, such as work to be done in post, producer Adam Torel sold off the majority of his record collection to help fund Uchida's vision. A hard truth is that films take money just as much as they do talent. In this sense the film is not as cynical as it may appear to be. There are people who love movies enough to get them made without the exploitation of others, and the ones who created a path of bitterness and betrayal in their wake will eventually get swallowed up by what they've sowed regardless if they've started on the right track. Better late than never is not what this film is espousing and that might be the most cynical thing about it.
Lowlife Love plays Friday, July 15 at Japan Cuts 2016.
Jason Suzuki is co-editor to Cinema Adrift.
Images courtesy of Third Window Films.