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Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Paco and the Magic Book パコと魔法の絵本 and its 'maximalistic' filmmaking)

Paco and the magic book

I was first exposed to Tetsuya Nakashima's filmmaking not through the internationally-acclaimed MEMORIES OF MATSUKO (which I was absolutely in awe of), but through a brilliant short film by him done quite a few years ago (could be 2004 or 2005, not sure), ROLLING BOMBER SPECIAL, which starred SMAP's Katori Shingo and totally makes fun of the Super Sentai (Power Rangers, Masked Riders etc.) genre.

This short film is a MUST-WATCH.

From that short 7-minute piece, one can already see Nakashima's frantic-paced, hyperrealistic, genre-bending style that now defines him. If Ozu, Hou Hsiao-Hsien or Dardenne Brothers are considered as minimalistic filmmakers, then Nakashima definitely belongs to the opposite side of the spectrum, I can only use 'maximalism' (or should I call it hysterical realism?) to describe his techniques.

Often inserting eye-poppingly colourful production designs, musical sequences, CG animated scenes into his works, he evokes memories of the Aronofsky's style in REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, Mierelles' in CITY OF GOD, or Danny Boyle's in TRAINSPOTTING. But maybe his closest counterpart is the French filmmaker, Jean-Pierre Jeunet (AMELIE, DELICATESSEN, CITY OF LOST CHILDREN etc.). In PACO AND THE MAGIC BOOK, what Nakashima did is similar to what he did with his previous film, MEMORIES OF MATSUKO, although this film is aimed for younger audiences. Once again, he takes a deceptively simplistic (and possibly old-fashioned) tale, and then cranks it up into a whole different level by his unconventional (audacious) execution and visual flair.

Just like how those not used to minimalistic films will find the viewing experience boring and sleep-inducing, those not used to maximalism might end up being overwhelmed by its constant visual assault and hyperkinetic pacing, among others. Maximalistic, or hysterical realistic filmmaking, similar to its literary counterparts, in literary critic James Wood's words, is a noisy "perpetual-motion machine" engaged in "the pursuit of vitality at all costs", instead of just a traditional 3-act structure, we have multiple stories and substories crammed into the film, different scenes executed using different methods and techniques. Detractors often complain of it being too 'gimmicky', or uneven, drawing too much attention to form and style than the actual content (story and character). Or too overtly smart, but ultimately lacking a voice. (if you're interested in this discourse, go read James Wood's criticism of these 'maximalistic/ hysterical realistic' works of literature, and Salon's rebuttal of Wood's criticism by Laura Miller.)

In the past, I've felt more affinity towards maximalism (the films I mentioned, above, CITY OF GOD, REQUIEM FOR A DREAM etc. are normally listed as some of my all-time favourites), since my earlier student films until this year's CHICKEN RICE MYSTERY lean more towards this technique. (my most recent short film, LOVE SUICIDES, marks the first time I experiment with minimalistic filmmaking) But that doesn't mean that I'm always a fan of such films. Say, for example, when I was at the PIA FILM FESTIVAL few months ago, I really wasn't much of a fan of the finalist film SEMIGAO, compared to TENGU LEAF, a film I saw on the same night which was minimalistic, transcendent and influenced by Dardenne Brothers. One brought me closer to its world, the other pushed me away because I felt that it tried 'too hard'.

But to me, the best maximalistic works often have a strong emotional core, brimming with humanity, unflinchingly showing the beauty or the ugliness of human nature. More about people than just ideas. They draw me in with their glossy style first, and then surprising me by gradually revealing to me its pathos and depth. I'm glad to say that PACO AND THE MAGIC BOOK belongs to this category.

The title character, Paco (Ayako Wilson), is a young girl who lost her parents in a car accident and also suffers from Memento-style short-term memory loss by not being able to remember anything that happened more than a day ago. Living in a hospital, every day she reads a pop-up book about a grumpy frog king who mistreats his subjects until his pond kingdom is invaded by an evil crayfish wizard. Reading this everyday is a new experience for her, and it's also her mother's last birthday present for her. Although she's the title character, I cannot really say that she's the protagonist, since the film is really an ensemble piece.

It focuses on the other denizens of the hospital, a gothic nurse with piercing and tattoos (Anna Tsuchiya), a deceptively hideous-looking gangster (Takuya Yamauchi), and a former child star (Satoshi Tsumbuki, last seen in THE MAGIC HOUR) who is suffering from a meltdown after as he finds himself constantly (literally) haunted by images of him as a cute child actor. There's also a drag queen, another nurse with vampire fangs, the effeminate doctor and a few others. (an added quirkiness: there's also a band of musicians in the hospital covered entirely in bandages who are constantly performing when they're onscreen)

The most important of them all (to Paco) is a heart patient Onuki (Koji Yokusho), a tyrannical tycoon who thinks that everyone else in the hospital are dirt and is initially annoyed with the little girl who constantly asks him to read her picture book.

One day, in a fit of annoyance, he punches her in the face. (He's really not a generic Disney film-style grumpy old man, but a genuine asshole.) Yet the film is really about him and the gradual bond between he and Paco, who few days later remember the punch only as a 'touch'. Seeing the growth of his character (Onuki is arguably the protagonist of the film), and the change of his attitude towards Paco is undoubtedly moving.

To my surprise, there were quite a few scenes during this transition where I find myself all choked up. (this didn't actually happen to me during MEMORIES OF MATSUKO and also note that at most times I didn't really understand the dialogue) As Onuki starts reading the book to Paco everyday, he also gets the idea of staging the picture book for the hospital's annual 'Christmas in Summer' play.

At the same time, the other characters who start out as zany manga caricatures (thanks to their actors' hamfisted acting), begin to develop into much more complex human beings with their own demons. Not just Onuki, but a few other characters are seeking redemption, and that's what make the film so compelling. Gradually it is impossible for me not to feel indifferent towards the cast of characters. And that's why the film works.

I won't divulge any more of the plot but the film turns into a very harrowing weepie towards the end. But during the scenes where the 'Christmas in Summer' play is being staged, the film intercuts between live-action and 3D animated sequences, the latter bringing Paco's picture book to life, and even those 3D animated scenes are truly vibrant and fun.

A really good film that I would like to revisit again (... with subtitles). As for the whole maximalistic/ hysterical realistic filmmaking that I've discussed earlier, this is actually related to part of my thesis, so this may not be the last you'll hear of it. ;)


MEMORIES by Kaela Kimura, theme song of PACO AND THE MAGIC BOOK

Related link:
Japan Times' review of PACO AND THE MAGIC BOOK