Being a cinema lover can feel like a case of unrequited love. My pulse quickens every time I settle into my seat and the darkness washes over the theater. It is very possible that the next two hours could be the most transformative of my life. I could find my new favorite film; my new reason to corner strangers at parties at talk at them about their unfair statement that “there are no more good movies.” I could laugh. I could cry. I could become energized and want to go out and show the world what I am made of. Unfortunately, more often than not, this is not the case. I leave the theater saying, “Well I guess it was a pretty good movie,” to be polite. Or I leave in a rage for wasting those two hours of my day. I find myself thinking that I love the movies more than they love me. On a rare occasion, however, I have all of my love for cinema reflected back at me. I leave the theater not only feeling as pumped up as ever, but I am also witness to a film created by a filmmaker who loves movies as much as I do.
WHY DON’T YOU PLAY IN HELL is Sion Sono’s love letter to filmmaking and in turn, a love letter to cinephiles. The heart of the film follows a group of young filmmakers who refer to themselves as the “Fuck Bombers.” This group of kids runs around their home town filming everything they see and having a blast. They each have their place in the film crew and are convinced that they are Japan’s next wave of cinema. When they encounter a freshly stabbed yakuza gangster slowly hobbling away from a fight, they do not hesitate to film him. The gangster does not fight or threaten the film crew either; rather he takes direction and is flattered by their attention.
Here is the world that Sono creates for us. One where film and filmmakers are showered with the admiration that any dedicated film fan has in their heart for the medium. Each and every group we see through the film love movies and instantly give the director within the film the respect he thinks he deserves. While this could come across as Sono’s service to his own ego, instead it presents itself as an understanding between the film and its audience. It is as if WHY DON’T YOU PLAY IN HELL is letting the audience know that we cinephiles are the intended target for the film, and we are about to spend time in the Sono-created world that just feels true to us. Then, through an impossibly ambitious plot, Sono takes us through the maze of Fuck Bombers, yakuza shoot-em-ups, toothpaste commercials, and some fine guerrilla filmmaking.
In WHY DON’T YOU PLAY IN HELL, the greatest tragedy is that the Fuck Bombers give up their dream. In the opening of the film they have nothing but passion and energy. Regrettably, we soon learn that this was a flashback, and in present day they are living in the past. They are still wearing the same clothes and watching the exact same footage as they did when they were children. The recreation center that was their personal screening space and functioned like their clubhouse has become rundown and is closing. They stop pursuing their love of filmmaking, and instead become a complacent audience. Their closed theater and wasted talent are the greatest loss, which is quite a stark contrast when bodies are piling up and limbs are flying during the fight sequences. Their diminished appetite for film is worse than the death that surrounds them. Thankfully their situation is reversible when they become embroiled in a yakuza gang war and are commissioned by one of the gang leaders to film the battles.
The result is over-the-top mayhem grounded by the relatable passion of its characters. And the audience is taken along on this wild ride of blood, revenge, and love of 35 mm film. This is Sono’s lesson for both the audience and the Fuck Bombers. Film is magic and you must not give up on it. If you leave your heart open to film, occasionally films like WHY DON’T YOU PLAY IN HELL will come along and love you back.