Why Don’t You Play in Hell? (2013)
Editor’s Notes: Why Don’t You Play in Hell? opens in Toronto at The Royal Cinema on Friday, January 23rd.
Innovation bears repetition in cinema. No idea is so great that it cannot be scoured by less imaginative directors to make a quick buck. The most potent example of this is the cinematic landscape in the years immediately following Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. Tarantino’s film broke the mold, and a generation of up-and-comers thought they’d found instead a template that would always result in blazingly original, brilliantly transgressive work without much effort on their part. This was a new formula that many thought was bound to generate success.
Sion Sono’s Why Don’t You Play in Hell? feels at times like a worthy successor to the mode Tarantino has been working in for the past decade.
The last two decades have given film countless pale imitators of Tarantino’s style, most of whom understood his aesthetics but not their underlying meaning. Sion Sono’s Why Don’t You Play in Hell? feels at times like a worthy successor to the mode Tarantino has been working in for the past decade. The film is a gleefully anarchic grindhouse spectacle, a silly, sprawling B-movie epic that evinces a true love of cheap cinema in all its underwhelming glory in a way that few directors can consistently pull off (even Robert Rodriguez, a Tarantino acolyte-cum-contemporary more often than not feels like he wants to love grindhouse films, rather than actually adoring them).
Why Don’t You Play In Hell? is not a condemnation, but an invitation, a blissful critique of cinematic convention that is half State of the Medium address and half silly riff on the clichés of excess. If the prospect of a film that can credibly claim to be Kill Bill meets Holy Motors appeals to you, its likely Why Don’t You Play in Hell? will be right up your alley. The film sacrifices the grandiosity of those two projects, but stays true to what lay at the heart of both: a deep love of cinema and a tragic recognition that they don’t make ‘em like they used to, whether what they used to make was good or not.
The film begins with its own homemade earworm that digs its way into your head so effectively, you’ll be amazed when its endless repetition doesn’t become annoying, and in some ways, that little ditty is the film in microcosm: at every turn, it threatens to lose the thread, to go over the edge or to lose itself in its morass of plotlines, sight gags, and violence, yet it somehow never does. The film then introduces us to a group of young cinephiles calling themselves “The Fuck Bombers,” who with handheld cameras, roller skater, and an indefatigable commitment to film regardless of quality, troll the streets looking for cinematic moments to capture, with willful disregard for the reality of the crime and death they memorialize.
The film is a gleefully anarchic grindhouse spectacle, a silly, sprawling B-movie epic that evinces a true love of cheap cinema in all its underwhelming glory in a way that few directors can consistently pull off …
From there, the film revels in complicating itself for no other purpose than because a morass of moments is more exciting to it than a simpler story. The Fuck Bombers cross paths with two rival Yakuza gangs. From there, the film unspools over a decade as film (the shooting format) dies and filmmaking becomes increasingly hidebound to convention. Through an insane series of events, The Fuck Bombers get positioned to stage a real life final battle between the rival gangs as a sort of snuff film and ode to a dying format, and the result is so absolutely nuts its invigorating in its sheer commitment to ridiculousness. The violence level hearkens back to the brutality of Ichi the Killer, yet calling Why Don’t You Play in Hell? a dark comedy would betray its undeniable sunniness. This is a relentlessly joyous film that just happens to be ruthlessly violent at the same time, and that these tones never clash is a testament to Sono’s mastery of his intention.
The film is simultaneously a nostalgic look back at a period when a love of film was enough to generate film, and an affirmation of the fact that this rose-colored past can also be an eternal present, and is, for some cinema-choked film junkie out there right now. Why Don’t You Play in Hell? is almost indifferent to whether it is a good film. It embraces its flaws as a lovable part of the process, a byproduct of taking true risks and of loving the process of filmmaking irrespective of whether a masterpiece is likely to result. The Fuck Bombers aren’t under-appreciated geniuses. They are a bunch of starry-eyed dreamers who couldn’t believe in their own ineptitude if they tried. They love too much and too purely for quality to enter into the equation, and its hard not to feel the same while watching this film. Calling it imperfect would be a betrayal; this film doesn’t strive for perfection, but valorizes striving in and of itself. There’s power in effort, and sometimes, maybe, measuring success by sheer outcomes is missing the point. The film revels in amateurism, and begs us to love as a blinkered idealist might. It asks us to remember a time when our ideas mattered more than what we could make of them, where the pure will to create was a value in and of itself. Why Don’t You Play in Hell? is a more effective grindhouse homage than Grindhouse, because its ambitions are simultaneously to achieve more and less. It wants to canonize a genre that is unworthy of canonization, but it also wants to remind us that saints are overrated. The sinners are much more fun.
Why Don’t You Play in Hell? is a more effective grindhouse homage than Grindhouse, because its ambitions are simultaneously to achieve more and less. It wants to canonize a genre that is unworthy of canonization, but it also wants to remind us that saints are overrated. The sinners are much more fun.