Published Sep 01, 2001
Adolescent alienation and loneliness were popular themes among Japanese filmmakers at this year's Toronto International Film Festival. Both Kiyoshi Kurosawa's "Pulse" and Shunji Iwai's "All About Lily Chou-Chou" examined the irony inherent in the fact that the more means of communication we have at our disposal, the less we actually communicate. It's not a new idea, although it has increasing resonance in this modern-day world of cell phones and email. But while "Pulse"'s spooky, existential slant on a teen horror/ghost flick is only spasmodically satisfying, the painful realism of "All About Lily Chou-Chou" is truly haunting.
The film opens with a series of BBS posts to Lilyphilia, a site devoted to Japanese pop star Lily Chou-Chou (the moniker is, interestingly, a combination of the pet names composer Claude Debussy used for his wife and child) and this conceit runs throughout the film, with posters sharing stories about the first time they heard Lily, examining the mysterious "ether" she professes to create with her music, and waxing poetic about the ways Lily's songs fit into their lives.
Outside the insular world of computers, however, things aren't so poetic. In a series of flashbacks, the film shows the pubescent characters' - some of whom are obviously contributors to Lilyphilia - gradual decline from happy-go-lucky schoolmates to grim and taciturn miniature adults, caught in a world of humiliation and defeat that they can't talk about with anyone not even each other. The friends' giddy trip to the island of Okinawa - filmed in blurred and vibrant colour - ends on a sour note and foreshadows the darkness to come. The pressures of high school soon come to bear and the characters move from participating in sports tournaments together to shoplifting and bullying.
With a series of stunningly photographed images, Iwai captures the breathtaking, passive savagery of teenage girls; the petty cruelty of teenage boys, who have moved on from pulling the wings off flies to tormenting weaker kids; and the awesome power of peer pressure. This is no After School Special vision of adolescence. One of the film's most powerful scenes finds our protagonist following a fellow student, who has been bullied into prostitution by the school's kingpin, to make sure she gets home. She lets him tail her at a distance until she finally turns and confronts him in the middle of a field, silently kicking and swinging her book bag at him. He does nothing to shield himself from the blows and her attack is so listless, it's the very picture of hopelessness. Another poignant, recurrent image is of this same, sweet-faced boy, alone in a vast field of swaying green, listening to Lily Chou-Chou on his headphones.
Music is the only escape for these teens, but the irony, of course, is that the BBS, which is supposedly "all about Lily Chou-Chou," is really all about them. These kids, whose spoken communication is reduced to insults, threats and awkward, sullen exchanges only open up under the guise of talking about Lily on the internet. "All About Lily Chou-Chou" gets right at the heart of music's importance to many adolescents; it's both a source of solace and a means of bridging the communication gap. When one boy is finally revealed as having betrayed this allegiance, the results are both horrific and completely understandable.