Few films at BIFF this year could claim to have a director with anything approaching the back catalogue of cinematic provocateur Takashi Miike, who brings his latest blood-soaked slice of genre delightfulness, First Love, to Busan this year. Depending on how you count them, Miike has directed over 100 movies since he began his career in 1991. Yes, 100! Anyone as prolific as him is not always going to churn out hit after hit, but when his filmography includes works as varied as the singular horror classic Audition, oft-banned gorefest Ichi the Killer, and the utterly bonkers comedy-horror-musical The Happiness of the Katakuris, you know anything new is going to at least hold your attention.
First Love opens with a smoke-filled, sweaty, amateur boxing match, a jazz-funk-digeridoo soundtrack, and a decapitated head being tossed into a neon-flooded Tokyo street, where it rolls, comes to a stop, and blinks. Already, this film has Takashi Miike written all over it. One of our boxers is Leo (Masataka Kubota), whose promising career in the ring is stopped in its tracks when a seemingly innocuous punch (and subsequent knockout) lands him in the hospital with a diagnosis of an inoperable brain tumor. A stoic sort (he’s admonished by his coach for not celebrating after winning a fight), Leo, who refers to boxing as “all I can do” roams the nighttime streets of Tokyo, despondent.
As he scowls his way around the nighttime streets, he runs into damsel in distress Monica (Sakurako Konishi), who’s been forced into prostitution to pay off her father’s debt and has found herself unwittingly wrapped up in a crime spree involving Yakuza, a dirty cop (Nao Ohmori), drugs, accidental murder, not-so-accidental murder, and grandmothers being punched in the face. Really, don’t worry about the details. It’s the journey that matters in this movie. Oh, and she’s haunted by the hallucination of her underwear-clad father. Oh, and she’s addicted to methamphetamines – and is, of course, the healthiest-looking methamphetamine addict on the block. Seeing her in a time of need, Leo, just after receiving his death sentence at the hospital, steps up to protect her. Unsurprisingly, hijinks ensue.
Miike has explored a great many genres in his wide-reaching filmography, but he’s always seemed to be more at home here, in the rain-slick streets of modern Tokyo. Taking place over the course of one wild night, First Love certainly sees Miike with his feet planted firmly this comfort zone. The violence is frequent, bloody, and stylish-as hell, and writer Masa Nakamura does an impressive job of weaving the often-intersecting plot threads together without you ever losing track of what’s going on or feeling like the pace is letting up. The dialogue won’t win any awards, but it’s just there for exposition, to get us to the next action beat. The chemistry between the two leads gives the film enough heart to keep us invested to the end, and I don’t think the film is trying to be anything more than it is, which is an endlessly entertaining romp which builds to a glorious climactic showdown between men and women wielding swords, guns, knives, crowbars, with a one-armed gangster wielding a shotgun thrown in the mix too.
First Love is a film that just has energy bursting out of its every seam, and I challenge you to find a sight at BIFF this year to match a manic Kase (Shôta Sometani), joyously rubbing heroin into his wounds and thinking it makes him invincible. It’s gleeful, stylish work, and a fine addition to the Takashi Miike oeuvre. At the age of almost 60, he’s bringing the kind of young-man energy to this film that Martin Scorsese brought to The Wolf of Wall Street or George Miller brought to Mad Max: Fury Road. While held back from greatness by the slightness of its characters and occasionally clunky dialogue, First Love is a film that is well worth the time of any fan of the genre.
Director: Takashi Miike
Producers: Muneyuki Kii, Misako Saka, Jeremy Thomas
Cast: Masataka Kubota, Sakurako Konishi, Shôta Sometani, Nao Ohmori
Runtime: 108 mins