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The City of Lost Souls (Takashi Miike) 2000


    Mediocre Miike doesn’t disappoint nearly as much as a less than stellar work from any other major director, if only because you know that if you dislike a film from the prolific Japanese director, a new one’s only a few months away. That being said, he is definitely an uneven director, but considering the risks that he takes, and the output he achieves, a few less than stellar outings are more than acceptable. The City of Lost Souls is tame by Miike’s standards, but that still leaves it plenty of room to get a little wild. Its hackneyed story of Yakuza revenge is represents Japanese cinema at its most clichéd, but Miike’s always-inventive visuals liven things up a good deal. As the film wears on without developing into anything more than what the first five minutes suggested, however, it’s tough not to grow restless, since the film really offers little more than the occasional comic evisceration.


    The characters and the actors that portray them are completely nondescript, but for some reason Miike lavishes more attention on his cast than usual. Visual flourishes, like two sequences in which the main characters are tattooed, suggest we’re supposed to have an emotional understanding of the Bonnie and Clyde style heroes of his tale, but there’s very little depth in their motivations or spark in their personalities. The opening narration suggests the film will be more sensitively observed than it ultimately is, and that’s a disappointment. A female perspective on these events might be refreshing, but the women in City are ciphers that occasionally strike out violently. On the rare occasions that the film does veer into the sentimental, such as when it trots out the little blind girl, it’s as embarrassing as the most sanctimonious movies. A hint of media satire arises early on, when the duo becomes minor celebrities, but even that cynicism quickly fades into the background. Much is made of the ethnicities of the heroes (she’s an illegal Chinese immigrant, and he’s a Brazilian/Japanese thug), but the only function it seems to have is to displace them from the rest of Japanese society. Miike seems to be continually lobbing ideas and themes at us, but few of them stick.



The laundry list of Miike’s distinctive, violent touches doesn’t really disappoint, except in their inability to find better context. The movie includes a deadly ping-pong match, a midget in an outhouse, one of the most audaciously overwrought gun duels I’ve ever seen, blood soaked P.O.V. shots, and CGI chickens engaged in a cockfight. Because the film’s plot isn’t terribly involving, however, Miike’s gimmicks don’t build upon each other, and his aesthetic only really works when he's riling us up by showing us something that we really haven't seen before. At best, this is a movie populated by flashes of brilliance among its general stagnancy. The City of Lost Souls is only an action movie, so perhaps attaching high expectations of depth and originality to it is asking a bit much, even of a director like Miike, but there’s little enjoyment even in the action scenes here. I wouldn’t call any Miike film deep, exactly, but usually the director’s style allows us to forget about the lack of substance of his movies. City is the first one that I’ve seen that felt utterly hollow despite Miike’s wizardry.


* * 


Jeremy Heilman