Kotoko (2011, Shinya Tsukamoto)
There is nothing more infuriating and disheartening than sitting in a movie theatre and realizing that, barely halfway through the running time, the film simply is not working for them. It is at that specific moment that a big decision must be made. Does one stick around until the very end in a gesture of respect towards to filmmakers’ efforts or maybe even in the hopes that the final lap will prove worthy, or bolt out of the room in order to avoid further ocular pains? Everybody will share his or her own answer and have their own idiosyncratic reasons for behaving as such. As for the editor in chief of Between the Seats, proper conduct, certainly when one anticipates to properly review a movie, is to stay until the oh so bitter end. Despite what one feels towards a film, any film for that matter, one should not forget that ever was put into it, so show a little respect. Still, even that can be a challenge sometimes.
Director and actor Shinya Tsukamoto brings us Kotoko, a sort of hybrid between horror and psychological drama. A psycho-horror-drama. That does sound about right given how there are moments when it felt a psycho had directed the darn thing. Anyhow, Kotoko asks viewers to follow what genuinely is an interesting premise: the trials and tribulations and a single, schizophrenic mother of a baby, the mother being the titular Kotoko (played by someone who goes by the name of Cocco). The character’s schizophrenic symptoms include violent hallucinations and seeing double whenever face to face with someone. Her instincts inform her that somebody is lurking behind, and sure enough, when Kotoko turns around, there is the ‘evil twin’ of the person standing before her. Her strange behaviour, supposedly noticed by her condominium neighbour’s, leads for the state to declare her unfit to raise the child, thus handing the baby into the caring arms of Kotoko’s sister. But before life can become any glummer, an author (director Shinya Tsukamoto) enters her life, having fallen madly in love with this strange, unstable woman.
From what information could gathered in preparation for this review, it would appear that director Tsukamoto has earned himself a cult following. The discernable newcomer can detect cult-like status by noticing any sort of special touches, sometimes as early as the opening scene, as is the case with Kotoko, during which a child version of the protagonist dances wildly on a beach, the dance increasingly erratic, the sound increasingly pulse pounding, until the camera shakes as if an earthquake is rocking the world and an ear piercing cry rips through the speakers. Fade to another scene. Definitely a strange start to the movie, although anyone who followed our coverage of Fantasia 2011 this past summer knows full well that this blog is most certainly not averse to strange films. In fact, we love them! That being said, strange and quirky can work in some instances and totally fail in others. The nature of the beast that is a film review means that it all comes down to a matter of opinion. Sometimes one can eloquently make the case as to why a film feels like it pushes all the right buttons or not. Then there are those times when, try as the reviewer, words are difficult to come by to succinctly and precisely explain why the movie fails. To be blunt, the bloody thing just didn’t feel right.
Today at Between the Seats, you, dear readers, are faced with one such complication: a review that knows not in which direction to venture in order to convey how Kotoko was one of the worst movie going experiences of the entire year. Typing those words feels like a slight injustice because something tells me that, partly, the troubling issues stem from the actual theatre experience. Kotoko was the third film at the FNC 2011 which we saw at the famous Ex-Centris in downtown Montréal and in all three instances it seemed pretty clear that the volume was turned up more than necessary for a pleasing movie watching experience. The other films seen there were Shame and Hashoter, but neither of those films relied so heavily on big sound. A bit, but never too much. Tsukamoto’s Kotoko, on the other hand, makes plentiful use of very, very loud sound any time Kotoko’s mind plays another one of its infamous tricks by having a double rush in to assault her. At times it isn’t a double at all, but singular hallucinations of people walking into her home and beating her up before obliterating her child. The shaky cam style is so intense and the volume of the yells, scratches and thuds so strong that virtually every one of those scenes became as unpleasant as possible. Worst still, the abusive use of a loud soundtrack is not restricted to the titular character’s many schizophrenic episodes, but also to moments when her baby cries incessantly as the mother tries to cook or perform chores. The hardship of being a bit crazy and the endless crying of her baby cause herself to scream and moan in a series of fits. She tosses pans against the wall, slides her back down the kitchen wall and just yells as the infant continue to cry. It’s just a bunch of really loud noise. An assault on the ears is what it is in reality. Scenes a few minutes later when Kotoko visits her son, now under the parenthood of her sister, feel so relaxing because things quiet down. Creating an immersive experience for an audience is all fine and dandy, but taking it to this level is too far. One should be happy a scene has changed for the sole reason that ear piercing noise has vanished. Directorial choices such as these which result in poor cinematography and atrocious sound design are a deterrent to decent storytelling, which is a shame becomes it puts the film at a severe disadvantage from very early on.
The hurdles do not end there, alas. This Cocco person, who plays the central character in the film, is not a terribly good actress. Screaming, panting and crying are things almost any actor can accomplish with passable success, the real heart of a performance should come when there are interactions, when lines are delivered, when profound gazes are offered, when something other than mere hysteria is asked of the actor or actress. Unfortunately, not only are those moments far and few between, but on the odd occasion that they do transpire, dearest Cocco is not up for the challenge, never lending the movie any serious sense of gravitas, of conviction. Her performance feels like a one trick pony. In Asia it is fashionable for pop singer’s to venture into tv and film, but that does not entail that everyone actually has the talent to pull it off. Various directorial issues also leave a lot to be desired as well. A character that looks to play an important role in the story is introduced in half-hazard manner and then disappears at about 30 minutes later. The mere reliance on the hallucinations are not enough to pull a viewer in. After all, the audience understands after a short while that everything she sees is not really happening. These are all spirits in her mind’s eyes. I am not sure what it is that director Tsukamoto is getting at by showing us another episode, and then another, and then another, each one more surreal and violent than the last. We get it, she has a problem. We know her son did not really get his head blown to smithereens in yet another total raping of our eyes and ears because this is all in her head! We know!!!
Forgive me, dear readers, for my emotions got the better of me. I offer a sincere apology, I do not normally give in to such basic, whiny responses.
By the time the film ends, it is unclear what exactly the director wanted to do all along. In the final moments, he makes an attempt at an emotionally rich call back to an earlier scene, but the willingness of the viewer to join in is dead. A few moments of comedy populate the drabness that abounds, and some of them land, but that is not nearly enough to save this film from the gallows. No pithy or snarky remarks to finish this review. The hallucinations, the pulse pounding sound design, the screams, the crying, the scenes of Kotoko singing to to calm herself down...none of that worked for me. I simply have a strong disliking for this movie.