Fri, Nov 12, 2004 - Page 16 News List

When a pop star makes kids monstrous

Shunji Iwai's 'All About Lily Chou-Chou' highlights the impact of pop music

By Elvis Mitchell  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

All About Lily Chou-Chou touches the soft spots.

PHOTO COURTESY OF IMAGEMET

In the early days of MTV -- the "I want my MTV" days -- one of the cable outlet's slogans was "too much is never enough." The same attitude could apply to All About Lily Chou-Chou, which offers an onslaught of feelings and footage that's quite daunting.

The Lily Chou-Chou referred to in the title is a fictive pop star, an exquisite victim persona combining Bjork, Sarah McLachlan and Kate Bush. She's never really seen; Lily occupies the movie only as a force that permeates the lives of the Japanese junior high school kids who are fixated on her and bombard one another -- and the movie screen -- with instant messages about the effects she has on their lives.

This opus by the writer and director Shunji Iwai is an epic about junior high alienation and the wanton cruelty of early teenagers: I Vitelloni, Fellini's realist masterpiece about alienated youth, with an even more self-absorbed and dangerous crowd. Their misbehavior is all the more awful because it doesn't stem from rage or volatility; these kids are just caught up in the hormonal surges that often lead to casual brutality.

The movie follows several roving bands of boys and girls as they intermingle, often physically and in emotionally violent ways, and it chronicles the resultant power plays.

Lily Chou-Chou is mostly about Hayato (Yuichi Hasumi), a lonely and shy boy who goes by the name "Lily-philia" on a fan's Web site. He doesn't fit into his school, especially after his close bond with his only friend, Shugo (Shusuke Hoshino), evaporates. Shugo then takes a sudden turn into bullying, which sends loyalties scattering throughout the school.

Iwai quickly establishes the tribal aspects of the kids' friendships, often making things clear just by capturing their body language; he's hypnotized by them. And because he doesn't stop to explain why these relationships change, the arbitrariness seems all the more horrible and real.

Film Notes:

All about Lily Chou-chou

Directed by: Shunji Iwai

Starring: Yuichi Hasumi, Shusuke Hoshin, Yoko Kuno

Running time: 146 minutes

Taiwan Release: today (one show) Majestic at 8:20


The Japanese obsession with pop drops snugly into Lily Chou-Chou because music gives kids a way to mark their territories and practice their malign exclusions, which is what junior high school can be all about. The film shows that Iwai knows the power of pop and has probably absorbed the work of John Hughes, possibly the most influential creative force in films of the last 20 years, whether we want to admit it or not. Hughes made his often-imitated mark by dramatizing his teenage cynosures while inflating their psychic wounds until they resounded with mythological overtones.

Iwai treats the ensemble cast of gifted young camera subjects with the same care and tenderness. He moves so deftly from one passel of kids to another that it is easy to get lost, especially when we search for more of the music prodigy Ayumi (Yoko Kuno), who has to withstand the deepest pain and comes up with a way of expressing her unhappiness that's like a slap.

Lily Chou-Chou has allowed its director to discover a new kind of cultural phenomenon: it's a slow-moving whirlwind. He loves his characters, and the picture offers an extensive range of emotional coloration, spiritual tones, shifts that are visually complemented by his able cinematographer, Noboru Shinoda.

Lily Chou-Chou has an effulgence that almost makes you think Shinoda has found an entire new rainbow, the glistening, yum-yum palette that makes magazines like the pop culture Tokion so much fun to thumb through. (He finds more variations on chartreuse than I ever knew existed.)

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