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Weekly Alibi The Decline of Eastern Civilization

By Devin D. O'Leary

MARCH 1, 1999:  A blind woman wakes in the morning and goes to buy a loaf of bread. This may not seem like the most auspicious of beginnings, but Japanese filmmaker Masashi Yamamoto spins this simple act off into a chaotic filmic experiment documenting 24 hours in the life of modern Tokyo.

Concentrating on the tattered fringes of society, Yamamoto introduces us to a random collection of Tokyo low-lifes. First up is Miki, a pathetic junkie who smokes some crack, strangles her lover to death, gets dressed and goes to work as a computer programming exec at a high-tech Tokyo firm. Miki's story seems to be the most central, and Yamamoto lenses her tale with an aggressive experimental style. Flashes of light, kinetic condensations of time and rapid shifts in color signal Miki's deteriorating mental state. Following in close succession, though, is a seemingly unrelated string of characters: a female Mexican wrestler biding her time until she flies home, the hyper leader of a hip-hop gang obsessed with finding his stolen car, an American prostitute prowling the streets of the Ginza district looking for kicks, a Pakistani immigrant fleeing the consequences of a heinous crime.

Most viewers would rightfully expect some kind of convergence or at least a resolution to all these divergent storylines. That isn't in the cards. Yamamoto isn't interested in narrative structure here. Junk Food contains much of the dirty DIY ethic of New York's underground filmmakers. Using largely amateur actors and a mix of film and video stock, Yamamoto creates a stylish collection of brief experimental sketches. Mood, place and character float through this free-form narrative, occasionally incandescing in a vivid visual image. Yamamoto wants to shock his audience, and occasionally he does with some bloody doings which leap from the languid narrative.

Fans of Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar Wai (Chungking Express, Days of Being Wild) will appreciate the hip, aloof stylings of Yamamoto. Amid the gritty vignettes, Yamamoto weaves a ponderous musing on today's "junk food" culture. Aside from the obvious drug pun in his film's title, Yamamoto seems to be dwelling on the cultural corruption of Japan. The street gang and its preoccupation with rap music and low rider cars seems like the ultimate symbol of Japan's cultural cannibalism--so eager to devour any trend or style, while its own long-standing mores, values and history slip away. One tattooed cast member expresses an open hatred of the Triads. But even those organized gangsters seem like models of moral behavior when compared with the anger-fueled "homies" on display in Junk Food. What are we to make of their brutal hatred of their own leader?

There's also the question of the "American" prostitute. By film's end, there's a growing suspicion that she may not actually be an American. Her accent isn't the smoothest, and she seems to know her Japanese pop stars far better than her American. Is she intended to be an actual Asian so obsessed with Western culture that she pretends to be American? Yamamoto isn't providing answers to any of these questions. His stream-of-consciousness narrative drifts on to another character, another location before we are able to glimpse the entire picture. Some may find this lack of information frustrating. Others will just go with the flow.

Yamamoto's sordid, shocking, gutter-dwelling mood piece is certainly not for every taste. Some critics have accused him of hewing too closely to the stylish, self-absorbed New Wave crime genre pioneered by Wong Kar Wai--much like young American filmmakers now parrot the works of Quentin Tarantino. There is a certain validity to the accusation, yet alert viewers can also see hints of early punk filmmakers like Derek Jarman. In the end, Yamamoto's work has an inscrutable, drug-crazed edginess all its own--guerrilla filmmaking turned kamikaze filmmaking.


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