Teenage kicks: Battle Royale and Girlfriend Boyfriend film reviews
Two very different movies about adolescent angst are now playing in the Bay Area. Kinji Fukasaku’s legendary Battle Royale (2001) has its long-delayed U.S. theatrical premiere at the San Francisco Film Society and the Taiwanese flick Girlfriend Boyfriend is rolling out in selected theaters around the country, including here in San Francisco.
My older kid was born around the time Battle Royale was first came out so I missed it back in 2001—this is the first time I’ve seen Fukasaku’s brilliant and infamous swan song. Aside from scattered festival and one-night screenings BR’s never had a theatrical release in the U.S. until now, but with the popularity of The Hunger Games (much inferior, by the way), it’s now getting a limited release. After more than a decade, Battle Royale doesn’t disappoint—it’s everything it’s cracked up to be and more. The concept may be sensationalist (a game where 15-year-old kids fight to the death) but the movie itself is much more than exploitation. This is economical storytelling at its best.
Director Fukusaku draws out great performances from his teenage cast, quickly and effectively sketching out their complicated relationships in a few rapid strokes. The fact that the students aren’t strangers but classmates with prior emotional relationships only adds to the frisson, and their adolescent dilemmas—who’s crushing on who, which girls are the top clique, how the popular and the excluded kids get on—are magnified to a fatal pitch by the movie’s premise. Most of us can totally relate to the situation, which adds another layer to the vicarious experience—who among us didn’t fantasize about taking an Uzi to a particular mean girl or mindless bully?
Fukasaku is masterful in executing (sorry) each vignette and the pacing and plot are spot on. The scene where the five happy schoolgirls suddenly turn their machine-guns on each other is amazing moviemaking at its best, particularly since it’s perfectly set up. The story arc of cold-hearted beyotch Mitsuko is also particularly brilliant as her backstory slowly reveals a much deeper motivation than plain self-interest or villainy. Not just simple exploitation, this is smart, smart stuff.
Although there have been a ton of extreme movies since its first release that go far beyond BR’s violence, Battle Royale’s slaughter always has an impact because the characters are more than simple cannon fodder. What Park Chan-Wook understands and Takashi Miike still doesn’t get is that an audience’s attachment to a character heightens the effect of the gore. Which is why the fact that the plight of (mostly) unwilling killers in BR has such a great effect—their backstories add meaning and that meaning adds a punch that goes beyond the visceral to the emotional.
Youthful angst takes a totally different turn in Girlfriend Boyfriend (GF BF), China Lion’s latest China/U.S. day-and-date release. GF BF is a slick drama with an unusual love triangle about Taiwanese youth coming of age in the last couple decades of the 20th century. The movie is nicely restrained and avoids veering toward excess even when the narrative steers over melodramatic waters.
The opening sequence, a present-day boxer rebellion of sorts at a Taiwanese girls school, frames the main story, which takes place mostly in 1980s & 90s Taiwan. Mabel (Guey Lun-Mei ), Aaron (Rhydian Vaughn), and Liam (Joseph Chang) are best friends in high school during the waning days of KMT martial law. The movie follows them as they come of age during the Wild Lily student movement of the early 90s and through their lives as young adults. The film touches lightly on youth uprisings of the 1990s but those events are really only a backdrop to the love story and mostly serve as a metaphor for the youthful rebellion of the protagonists.
All three leads are quite good—Joseph Chang resembles a young Simon Yam (i.e., ridiculously good-looking) and is effective as the conflicted Liam. Guey Lun-Mei has been one of my favorite young actors lately and she holds her own as the pivot of the triangle. British-Taiwanese actor Rhydian Vaughn, last seen rocking a mullet as one of the gangsta boys in the ‘hood in Monga, is charming and goofy with his million-dollar smile.
The movie makes some interesting points about sexuality, although the story arc of one of the main characters grappling with his desire is a bit mopey for my tastes. His angsty. quasi-closeted behavior, however, is offset by the out-and-proud queerness of one of the supporting characters.
As noted by my buddy Anita, the movie was shot on film (though digitally projected) and the cinematography is aces, with some gorgeous, incandescent shots. The look of the film transmutes smoothly from the dull green utilitarianism of the 1980s Taiwanese high school to the glowing sheen of millennial Taipei. The three leads age convincingly, with the aid of various wigs and hairstyles, with Guey in particular conveying the brashness of late teenhood through a more sober early adulthood.
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