Film | Wide Angle

Takashi Miike shows his softer side at Macao film festival

by Mark Schilling

Contributing Writer

Macao is not the most obvious place to hold a film festival. The former Portuguese colony is more a mecca for gambling than cinema, with giant casinos dominating the landscape and movie theaters few if not far between. (To be precise, there are seven for a population of 667,000.)

And yet, the 4th International Film Festival & Awards Macao, held at venues around the territory from Dec. 5 to 10, was a splashy event, attended by actors and directors from China and farther afield, which presented nearly 50 new and classic films from around the world.

The biggest Japanese name at the festival was Takashi Miike, who came to support “First Love,” his action film set in the Tokyo underworld, that premiered at this year’s Cannes festival. Accompanying the 59-year-old director were cast members Masataka Kubota, Seiyo Uchino and Rebecca Eri Rabone, better known as “Becky.”

When about a dozen members of the international press crowded into a room at the Macao Cultural Centre for a group interview with this quartet, I realized I might get, at best, one question in.

The film, which I had seen that morning, was a return to the Miike of nearly two decades ago, who was then churning out low-budget yakuza pics that were darkly comic, extremely violent and madly imaginative. Starring Kubota as a struggling boxer who takes up with a drug-addicted prostitute (Sakurako Konishi) under the thumb of a yakuza and his volatile girlfriend (Becky), “First Love” unfolds in a present-day Tokyo where Japanese gangsters battle their Chinese rivals and betrayal follows betrayal. But in this war of all against all, a square-jawed gangster (Uchino) fresh from prison embodies the old-school yakuza virtue of ninjō, meaning he has feelings for others he is willing to nobly act on, even if the result is self-sacrifice — or self-destruction.

In past interviews I always found Miike to be polite, thoughtful and serious — the opposite of his on-screen wild man image — and so he was this time, too. “‘First Love’ is one of my most hopeful movies,” he said. “It’s about love and relationships, so in that way it’s different from my other films. That’s why it’s special for me.”

But the film is also full of yakuza that are less than loving in their various relationships, a journalist countered. Miike said he wanted to go beyond the yakuza bad guy image and “show that they are human beings, capable of change,” and that, with love, “everything can change.”

Becoming a boxer for Miike required considerable in-the-ring training, said Kubota. And, despite having a script, Miike “shot as though he were making a documentary film.”

“Boxing fascinates me,” Miike said. “After the war, Japan regained social status through the victories of its boxers in the ring. Japanese were poor but boxers gave them courage. Boxing is a metaphor for hitting back and showing you can win in life. In that way the movie is about making a comeback. Japan came back after the war. In the film, a boxer is trying to come back and find a new reason to live.”

And “First Love” is a reason for fans to celebrate: Bodies still fall in ways crazy and cool, and stoic ninjō, not just sweet love, still lives.