Review of All About Lily Chou-Chou (2001)

Moving picture, 146 minutes

Seen in 2019.

At 14, Hoshino goes bad. If this has a cause at all, it is ambiguously a result of the collapse of his parents’ once-thriving business, their divorce, a near-death experience drowning off an Okinawa beach, unmentioned possible brain damage from the lack of oxygen, the probable death—in a traffic accident—of the adult who found him lifeless on the beach, and/or other factors. Even before he went bad, Hoshino stole the money for the trip to Okinawa from muggers. After going bad, he becomes an apparently sociopathic career criminal, bullying others, driving a girl to suicide by blackmailing her into prostitution, having another girl gang-raped at the suggestion of a female bully, etc. Yet his first act is to throw the stolen money away.

Before Hoshino went bad, he was friends with Hasumi, the main character. After Hoshino goes bad but before the film opens, Hasumi becomes his victim. Unbeknownst to themselves, while their real-world relationship has deteriorated, they hang out under pseudonyms on the same message board. It’s dedicated to “etherial” run-of-the-mill pop star Lily Chou-Chou who is never shown in person. Idealizing Lily seems to be all that sustains Hasumi through his angst. When Hasumi and Hoshino meet by chance at her concert, Hasumi realizes that his online acquaintance and offline tormentor are the same person.

Arthouse teen drama. This film is weird in roughly the same way as Anno’s Love & Pop (1998). Iwai, who wrote, directed and edited it on the basis of his own online novel, was a friend of Anno’s and used a similar, highly portable digital camera. The subjects are also similar. Massive on-screen text from the message board, and occasional references to millennial apocalypse and Nostradamus, complement high swells of teen emotions as in Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995). Fortunately, Iwai was by this time already an experienced live-action filmmaker and is substantially more competent in his compositions, sticking to the level of creativity in Ritual (2000). The actors do pretty well.

Unfortunately, the sound design is about as bad as Ritual. The cleanliness of digital hurts the image: It’s not the grainy, lo-fi naturalism of Fucking Åmål (1998). Extradiegetic lighting shows up frequently, untethered to the light hand-held camera, revealing artifice. The same goes for the script. The plot lacks basic causality and the presentation of it is deliberately convoluted to the point that it seems to have been crafted for arthouse geeks who sneer at clarity as gauche. Much is omitted, told out of sequence for no reason, or interleaved with irrelevant near-nonsense from the message board. It’s possible to get caught up in the flow of it for a few minutes at a time but the effort of decoding it is not rewarded. Hoshino’s apparent transformation seems to be a Flitcraft parable, but Iwai presents it as if he didn’t care. No particular point is made about bullying, inattentive adults, pop culture, the Internet or growing up, nor is the drama engaging. All About Lily Chou-Chou is best forgotten as one of a long series of failed experiments in showing the online dimension of people’s lives on film.

References here: A Silent Voice (2016).

moving picture Japanese production fiction