Dead Run (2005)
Director Sabu has a small cult following thanks to his quirky, slightly clever but mostly quite fluffy comedies which tend to be based around a literal perspective on the theory that a good story is about the characters' "journeys". However, there was a suspicion gaining ground that he was stuck in a rut with this theme/style, especially after the rather uninspired and uninteresting pair of BLESSING BELL and HARD LUCK HERO.
Perhaps feeling this rut himself, DEAD RUN represents a pretty radical change of direction (and style) for the director. Not only are the characters' journeys more metaphorical than literal this time around, but 'light fluffy comedy' is right off the menu... DEAD RUN is heavy stuff.
The film feels more typically 'Japanese' than Sabu's other work (which feels like nothing so much as Sabu's other work). The pacing is languid, the storytelling sometimes oblique and mostly stripped of exposition (though sections are narrated, curiously, in the second person). The prevailing atmosphere is of melancholy throughout most of the film, reinforced by mostly static camera placement and a (beautiful) haunting soundtrack. Stylistically there are definitely shades of Shunji Iwai, maybe with traces of Takeshi Kitano and Toshiaki Toyoda.
The story concerns a boy called Shuji, growing up in a rural area of Japan where the community is divided into "Shore" and "Offshore" - the latter so-named because it is built on reclaimed land. He meets a few main characters, besides his family, that shape his development - gangster Oni-ken (Susumu Terajima) and his hostess girlfriend, an ominous-looking Catholic priest and his congregation-of-one, the troubled and rebellious teenage girl Eri - who also becomes Shuji's classmate and the object of his adolescent affections.
Life in the Shore/Offshore community is not a bundle of joy - the impression is of a community and lifestyle in decay, with the only hope of rejuvenation being a gangster-funded hotel development project that doesn't exactly inspire the locals either. It's an environment that does not fill its young inhabitants with much hope or inspiration.
Since Sabu's previous films have essentially been about self-discovery through a journey, one might expect that DEAD RUN will follow a similar path - which leads the characters to discover the hope and inspiration missing from their environment. One would be wrong. When a glimmer of hope seems to appear on the horizon, you can be fairly sure that its going to be dashed. The central and recurring presence of the church and the bible often had me wondering if Sabu was going to start selling Christianity to me, but the promise of redemption it initially seems to offer is never delivered. As I said, DEAD RUN is definitely a departure from Sabu's other films.
In fact, this turns out to be the main criticism I have of the film. Whilst the first 2/3rds are undoubtedly powerful stuff, with ideas and imagery that are sure to leave an impression, I couldn't help *hoping* that Sabu was going to pull some redemption and optimism out of his hat in the last act. In fact, circumstances do force characters to abandon their passive slide towards defeat and take charge of their lives, but whilst this is certainly transformative, it is hard to argue that it's redemptive. Whilst events in the final few reels are often unexpected, they are in many ways too obvious - in the context of Japanese cinema at large, if not Sabu's own body of prior work. This leaves them feeling rather unfulfilling, especially because they sometimes rely on characters acting in a manner that they've shown no disposition towards earlier. I assume that the novel being adapted provided constraints in this respect, but I think the film would have been more successful if it had followed a more typically Sabu-ian trajectory at the end.
The film definitely shows that Sabu is more than a one-trick pony though, and being more high-brow and portentous will perhaps help him to cross over with international audiences in the way that some of his contemporaries have managed (though it is not at all clear why his earlier films have been largely neglected outside - and probably inside - Japan). Despite my reservations about the ending, it's a powerful film that is worth a watch.