Monday 23 June 2008

Vital (2004)

This one would seem to be rather appropriate right now, given that my eldest stepson seems to have just lost the last year and a half of his life, but I hope he doesn't end up stuck in some of the same situations as the lead character here. It's a story about an amnesiac medical student called Hiroshi Takagi. His car got hit by a truck and he lost his memory and his girlfriend both. Somehow though while his personal memories are completely gone, he remembers his studies and so finds his way into medical school where he excels.

Soon for us, though three years later for him, Takagi gets into dissection class, in which the students group up and dissect a body for four months. Gradually the man with no personal memory comes to realise that the body he's dissecting, that he's been making very detailed anatomical drawings of, is his dead girlfriend, Ryoko. What he sees aren't necessarily memories, especially as his realisation of time is highly inconsistent. Often what he sees are visions to do with life and death and reality, and the meaning of each.

In these visions Hiroshi and Ryoko indulge in fantasy death play, erotic asphyxiation, getting that high that comes with a proximity to death while always pulling back before it's too late. In the present, he's forged some sort of relationship with a fellow student, Ikumi, but it's obviously to him a pale substitute for what he had with Ryoko. Soon she discovers what Hiroshi has been hiding which only leads her to an even more unsettled state of mind. The colours Shinya Tsukamoto uses are presumably very deliberate and I presume have to do with life and death too: the cold clinical blues of Hiroshi's room, the warm vibrant reds when Ryoko is dancing and the lush greens when the two of them connect.

Tsukamoto's stamp is all over this film. He's not just the director: he wrote, co-produced, edited and did the production design and the cinematography. It's not far off a one man show, presumably something very personal to him. It's a beautifully shot, intriguingly structured theme piece and I'm sure it warrants a number of viewings to fully appreciate. He's never been an easy director to quantify and every film of his I see makes that task harder still.

The other name I know well here is that of the lead actor. Tadanobu Asano seems to be everywhere at the moment. I first saw him in Ichi the Killer and didn't even recognise him when I saw him again in Last Life in the Universe. I started to realise both his versatility and consistency through a Asano double bill at Chandler Cinemas: they gave us a fascinating double punch of Sharkskin Man and Peach Hip Girl and Survive Style 5+. Since then it's been Gemini and Bright Future and Vital and no doubt more soon.

These are very different movies and Asano gives us very different performances that still show commonality. This may seem strange given that I first saw him as Kakihara in Ichi the Killer, but he underacts very powerfully indeed. I don't think I've ever seen an actor who can say so much while doing so little. He has a habit of just standing there doing nothing, but somehow he manages to convey deep emotion, that varies from scene to scene and film to film. I have no idea how he does it but it's an amazing talent.

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