By Dave Wilson | January 3, 2011
Director: Masahiro Kobayashi
Writer: Masahiro Kobayashi
Starring: Akira Emoto, Kippei Shiina, Maika, Wakaba Nakano, Kazue Takani, Tamaki, Kazuki Kitamura
The first half of Masahiro Kobayashi’s Bootleg Film (1999) has the sensibility of a black comedy and the texture of a fractured, sixties art film. An aging, heavy drinking yakuza named Tatsuo (Akira Emoto) and a humorless, scowling cop named Seiji (Kippei Shiina), drive through a stark winter landscape, trading insults, swigging cans of Heineken, and tossing their empty cans into the backseat. They bicker, they quote lines from movies, and they even try to strangle each other. Their tirades are offset now and then by an off-kilter saxophone march that sounds like something from the Russian circus in Moscow on the Hudson. Yet the circumstances that have brought these men together are anything but funny. Once friends, Tatsuo and Seiji are on their way to attend the funeral of a woman named Ayako, who has recently committed suicide. At various times, she was the gangster’s lover and the cop’s wife, sometimes both at once. During the course of the film, we learn that the marriage ended abruptly under mysterious circumstances that may have involved infidelity, a pregnancy, and the subsequent pressure to have an abortion. Now as the yakuza and the cop travel together, grappling to understand the facts, each man contends that he was the true object of Ayako’s affection, and believes that he loved her most deeply. Each man, in turn, holds the other to blame for the suicide that has taken her away from them forever.
In Kobayashi’s hands, these details arrive in shards and fragments through a style that is deeply reflexive, as if thrown into the same blender that produced those jump cuts of Jean Seberg in Breathless. In flashbacks, Kobayashi snips away frames, causing the women from Tatsuo and Sieji’s past to jump from here to there in desolate, unfurnished apartments and anonymous hotel rooms, while the accusatory voices of wives and lovers wash across the soundtrack. In fact, if it weren’t already apparent from the title itself, Bootleg Film is a movie that is intensely self-conscious of its own identity as a film. Some of Tatsuo and Seiji’s arguments play as unsynchronized dialogue over their impassive, tight-lipped faces as they drive towards us, beer cans in hand, the front windshield shaking so violently that there is no way to forget that we are viewing this through a camera on a rickety car mount. Kobayashi captures the entire proceedings in a crisp, high contrast black and white, punctuated by occasional flash frames and sudden cuts to black, which are often accompanied by the sound of gunfire.
There are many references to the movies, but perhaps the film owes its greatest debt to Tarantino’s manic movie love, Jarmusch’s deadpan ennui in Stranger Than Paradise, and Godard’s playfulness in films like Pierrot le Fou and Les Carabiniers. The old yakuza tells his friend that he doesn’t believe in reality at all, but only in the movies. He quotes film dialogue endlessly, and the impatient cop has grown so weary of this that he’s about to snap. Both men even look like they’ve just stepped out of Reservoir Dogs. In one scene that takes this gag a little too far, a hip young couple in shades pulls into a rest stop where they see the yakuza and the cop standing face to face in their black suits, arms extended, guns aimed at each other’s foreheads, as if posing for a John Woo poster. The girl, who sports Uma Thurman’s precious Pulp Fiction hairstyle, turns to her boyfriend and remarks, “They’re doing Tarantino’s film. I wonder which one is Harvey Keitel.”
The whole effect is one of cleverness and irony to the point of distraction. But just at the point you want to throw up your hands and call the whole thing a gimmick, Kobayashi derails the proceedings and reinvents the whole film, engineering a brilliant shift in tone, as the shambling, movie-quoting gangster commits a series of brutal murders. This time the gun is not filled with blanks. The lighthearted games and visual tricks of the first half fall away and a pervasive feeling of dread sets in. The men must now face the reality of taking human lives, as they move inexorably towards their final appointment with Ayako’s body.
In the end, Kobayashi brilliantly intertwines the sheer movie love of the film’s first act with the gravity and brooding philosophy that marks the later sections of the film. The world weary gangster grows quiet and contemplative, we learn more about the body in the trunk, and the straitlaced cop, who has never taken a life before, learns that maybe it isn’t so hard to pull a trigger after all. Bootleg Film was screened as part of Un Certain Regard at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival and has just been released by Facets DVD as part of The Kobayashi Four box set.