My friend shook his head. “It’s been a bad year for movies,” he said. “A couple of blockbusters, and what else?” Well, a few things, at least. My favorite for the year so far is Birds of Passage, a kind of Godfather set in the world of indigenous Colombians. Family tensions and the old ways yielding to the new as the drug trade enters in, that sort of thing. I was also quite fond of Transit, a kind of melancholy Casablanca set in Marseilles. The personal dramas of divided hearts set against the looming threat of Nazi extermination in a port city, that sort of thing. And I definitely liked Takashi Miike’s First Love, which isn’t exactly a kind of Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood, but which shares enough — a lead afraid he’s got nothing to live for anymore, the looming threat of a mob, and oh yes, a climax packed with cartoonish violence — that I found myself comparing the two. And while I admired the Tarantino, I think I enjoyed the Miike more. A bit less self-conscious, a bit more humane — even as it leaves zero room for sentiment.
We open on Leo, a Japanese boxer training for a fight — mostly, as we come to find, because the lad, abandoned amid the trash as an infant, doesn’t know what else to do with himself. Once inside the ring, he wins via a punch to the head that puts his opponent on the canvas and lets Miike set the tone as he cuts to a shot of another head at the losing end of a fight, this one rolling free, still blinking, into the streets of Tokyo. It seems the Chinese have decided to move on the Yakuza, and have loosed an assassin — the sort who keeps her swords in a golf bag, their handles concealed by cheerful knit club covers.
What follows is an exercise in madcap action surrounding a stolen shipment of drugs, much of it fueled by either criminal incompetence, the primal will to survive and protect one’s own, or the clash between the two. But what keeps it from becoming a mere farce is Miike’s profound sympathy for his leads: first Leo, and then Monica, the drug-addicted whore tormented by visions of her sexually abusve father, a pudgy schlub clad only in tighty-whiteys and a rumpled bedsheet. Easily the best onscreen ghost I’ve seen this year. I’ll have to alert my friend.