REVIEW: All About Lily Chou-Chou - Shunji Iwai (2001)
Reviewed by Marc Saint-Cyr
Made in 2001, All About Lily Chou-Chou is a penetrating, unflinching look at the life and culture of youth; more specifically, the youth of contemporary Japan . This is a world not too dissimilar from that of North American high schoolers, as both are heavily comprised of petty alliances, humiliations and intimidation. However, the heightened pressures of responsibility and duty, obsession with media and pop culture and viciousness against the film’s young victims are effective indicators of just how different Japanese youth culture is from everywhere else. The film’s central characters are painfully quiet in the face of confrontation, paralyzed by insecurity and fear until, without warning, they release themselves in shocking, sudden acts of violence. Not unlike films such as Taxi Driver and The Brave One, All About Lily Chou-Chou is, in fact, all about victimization and the lightning-strike flashes of violence that inevitably follow, but, disturbingly, its protagonists are only children who are still trapped in the treacherous realm of teenage adolescence.
Yet there is another realm that offers a sort of fellowship and escape for these troubled youths: that of music, the fictional pop star Lily Chou-Chou and the “Ether” that she is said to channel and embody. The cultural and personal significance of Lily is made clear in several passages in which lines of text from chat room conversations about her fill the screen, written by (presumably) young fans from across Japan and (possibly) the world. They idealize Lily as a signifier of musical perfection, existing in the same vein as Erik Satie and Claude Debussy (whose music is heard throughout the film alongside the haunting, otherworldly songs of Lily herself, which are performed in actuality by Japanese singer Salyu), but unattached to any influences or predecessors. Lily is, to these fans and the film’s main characters, a way to transcend the boundaries of pain and reality that enclose them. Yûichi, the main protagonist, so fully devotes himself to Lily and her music that he at one point says, “For me, only Lily is real.” Through this intimate look at fandom (Lily herself only ever appears in a brief excerpt from one of her music videos shown on a giant screen and through her music, existing as a sort of elusive, unattainable entity for her fans to worship from afar), the film dwells on the question of whether music has the power to save people’s lives.
The unique, dreamlike way in which the film unfolds is owed to (and, in turn, offers much hope for) the aesthetics of digital cinema. Shot entirely on a digital format, All About Lily Chou-Chou employs hand-held camera work and odd, creative angles, producing the three “I” elements that seem ideally suited for digital cinema: immediacy, intimacy and intensity. Hazy, sun-washed compositions of blue and green and murky, disorienting night sequences brilliantly reflect the detached, muddled mind states of the teenagers as they seemingly sleepwalk through their torturous existences. A portion of the film in which Yûichi and some friends take a trip to Okinawa is shot entirely with a digital camcorder as if by one of the boys, an extremely effective device that gives the viewer a better sense of these young characters both before and behind the camera and renders their experiences regarding exploration, sexuality and death all the more poignant and real. In a way, this brief escape from their town and school serves as a microcosm of all the things that plague their everyday lives through the rest of the film.
All About Lily Chou-Chou is admirable for the way it takes familiar material (the teenage experience) and depicts it in an utterly original way. Along with the recent Canadian film The Tracey Fragments, it stands as a major triumph of both digital cinema and the ongoing, rigorous investigation of young people in film. The pains of being a teenage misfit has never quite been as beautifully or poetically realized as it is here.