Wild Life is that rare form of comedy-thriller – one that actually gets funnier and lighter as it progresses. Usually a need to develop and resolve the storyline means that the drama overtakes the humour, but here director Shinji Aoyama throws a curveball by gradually turning a generic gangster movie into something far more inventive and entertaining.
Kosuke Toyohara plays Hiroki, an ex-boxer who now leads a solitary, regimented life. For five years he has observed the same rituals throughout the day – jogging each morning, two beers at 7pm sharp and so on – and works nights repairing pachinko gaming machines for games parlour owner Tsumura (Mickey Curtis). Tsumura is a father figure to Hiroki, and it is his involvement with gangsters that leads the younger man into a strange world of blackmail, mistaken identity, unrequited love and possible murder.
Like Twin Peaks or Repo Man filtered through the eyes of Takeshi Kitano, Wild Life takes ordinary subject matter and turns it into something far greater. For a start, Aoyama has no interest in telling his story in any sort of linear fashion. The first third is immensely confusing, as the director flashes forward and back, sometimes starting one scene, cutting to something else before returning to finish it ten minutes later. The film is divided into 13 seemingly randomly inserted chapters, and it takes some concentration to keep up with all the characters. Aside from Hiroki and Tsumura, there’s Mizoguchi, a former employee of Tsumura who has disappeared, Tsumura’s daughter Rei who has taken a liking to Hiroki, a Yakuza who is eager to retrieve a package he believes Mizoguchi has given to Hiroki, plus assorted cops, crooks and estranged spouses.
It almost seems as if Aoyama is mocking this too-familiar genre by making this initial half-hour overly confusing and playing it with a straight face. He slowly introduces subtle shifts in tone – during one conversation about the music of Gershwin, we notice the score has taken on a playful, jazzy feel that remains for the rest of the film. Hiroki has an encounter with a Yakuza thug that resolves in an unexpected way – the one-time boxer knocks out this towering thug with two shift blows. There’s a superb sequence as Kiroki, Rei, plus Tsumura’s wife and Mizoguchi’s ex-mistress speed through the city, the camera sliding towards and away from the characters as we hear their thoughts on a voiceover. And as the film progresses, Hiroki transforms from a quiet, shy loner to a proper movie hero – wooing the ladies and fearlessly facing up to the bad guys.
Like Howard Hawks’ similarly densely-plotted The Big Sleep, Wild Life is a film that ultimately puts style above story, creating any number of fascinating scenes and characters without ever making the film ‘gripping’ in the way thrillers are supposed to be. It’s full of technical trickery – in one scene, Hiroki walks into a sepia-tinged flashback and addresses the camera, and in another, the camera revolves dizzyingly around a police interrogation, the interviewee changing each time the camera passes by. There’s also a hilarious death-by-soda can, filmed in a way that would make Sam Raimi proud. Aoyama has gone on to make more accomplished, better regarded films, but few as purely entertaining as this irreverent, knockabout gem.
[Artsmagic DVD is available in Region 1 and Region 2, and includes an interview with Shinji Aoyama, audio commentary by Jasper Sharo and filmographies]
Japanese director best known his acclaimed 2000 film Eureka, a hypnotic, sprawling drama that was a prize-winner at Cannes. Other offbeat work includes the thrillers Wild Life and Lakeside Murder Case, dark drama Desert Moon and the gruesome Embalming.