Saturday, January 12, 2019

The Trade and the Story

Two reporters from rival papers try to expose a drug and sex trafficking cartel in 1960's Smashing the O-Line (密航0ライン, "Stowaway 0 Line"). It should be a pretty straight forward story but director Seijun Suzuki, as he often did, took this poor innocent pulp script for a bizarre ride, making for a tough, dizzying, and tantalising experience.

It's hard to find much information on this movie. Even Japanese Wikipedia doesn't have an entry for it though somehow it's streaming for free on Amazon Prime. The imdb page has one trivia item, claiming the film was "written, shot, edited and released in 16 days." I find that impossible to believe though it does use a lot of location footage that might've been taken without getting permits.

But when I think of a movie shot within a few weeks, I think Ed Wood and Roger Corman, movies filled with bad sound, aimlessly long takes--films in dire need of proper post production. Smashing the O-Line is filled with powerful, communicative cuts and elaborately executed visual ideas. I suppose it could very well be Suzuki was that much of a genius at improvisation, he may well be the Charlie Parker of Japanese New Wave film.

The first half of the film is a little hard to follow--it demands a viewer pay close attention, not sparing time to explain very much. The journalists, Katori (Hiroyuki Nagato) and Nishina (Yuji Kodaka), are introduced as old friends, and then we get scenes in quick succession of prostitutes and drug caches. Quickly we see the difference between Nishina and Katori is more than the papers they work for; they operate under completely different ethical standards. One might say Katori doesn't have any.

Early on we see him getting out of bed with a prostitute, take a shower, and then call in the police from outside while she stands naked in the bath. And Katori clearly seems to get a sadistic pleasure out of it, even assuring her "It's just me!" when she hears the cops open the door. There's no reason for him to do that but to toy with her.

Nishina, on the other hand, has a strong sense of morality and balks at misleading his sources or going places without the proper permits. He's frustrated that Katori consistently beats him to stories.

A lot of stories go by really quick--Suzuki does come up with a lot of fast ways to make things stick out, like when we're introduced to Katori's sister, Kumiko (Mayumi Shimizu), whose face we first see when she turns sharply away from Katori's fashion model girlfriend.

The last forty minutes or so are more straight forward as Nishina stows away on a ship in Hong Kong, posing as a Chinese man despite not knowing how to speak any Chinese. When some dock inspectors ask him to take his clothes off, it's revealed that he's wearing a woman's blouse under his coat for no apparent reason.

It seems like the kind of surreal idea Suzuki would have in his later films but, then again, there's a sense to it--if Nishina is in any way unable to prevent his behaviour from seeming suspicious or like he's hiding something, the blouse gives the inspectors an explanation for it. It's very typical of Suzuki to show something like this without any preamble explanation most filmmakers would feel it necessary to include. And it works great.

Katori is the far more interesting character, though, a man of absolute commitment yet full of contradiction. He really seems passionate about breaking up the trade of sex slaves, explaining he's willing to go to any lengths to do so, yet in one remarkable scene he refuses to cooperate with a brothel madam who has a bunch of her thugs molesting his sister in a car that's racing circles around the car where Katori sits. This scene is dizzying in more ways than one and the editing involved, since most of the shots are from near the characters' points of view, must have took considerable skill. It's not one of Suzuki's best films but it's pretty damned good for a quick work.

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