Friday, February 19, 2010

REVIEW: Lala Pipo

ララピポ (Lala Pipo)

Released: 2009

Masayuki Miyano

Hiroki Narimiya
Tomoko Murakami
Yuri Nakamura
Mari Hamada
Tetsu Watanabe

Running time: 93 min.

Reviewed by Eric Evans

Set in the milieu of the Japanese sex industry, "Lala Pipo" looks like a romantic comedy--it's shot in the bright, colorful style of a Doris Day picture. But like the similarly visually-rich-but-misleading "Memories of Matsuko," that's a trick: Director Masayuki Miyano tells a harsh, at times brutal, series of overlapping stories. If you're familiar with the insipid current hit "Valentine's Day"--a collection of love stories showcasing shiny happy people falling into love with one another--here's the flipside of the coin, examining the broken romance at the seedy underbelly of AV films and hostess clubs.

But all is not gloom and doom. There are plenty of off-kilter laughs in "Lala Pipo", and (spoiler alert) try as I might I can't think of another movie with a talking muppet penis. It's tempting to recommend the film based on the few fantasy elements because they work so well, but they're few and far between. When events turn ugly (and they do) the film is unflinching. Considering the subject matter there aren't many of these sequences either, but they're jarring--moreso in that they're juxtaposed against the saturated colors and rom-com expectations of their presentation.

Writer Tetsuya Nakajima, who not coincidentally also wrote the similarly freewheeling flesh cartoons "Matsuko" and "Kamikaze Girls", adapted Okuda Hideo's novel with much the same wit and swing as his previous efforts. It's never boring, but it's a somewhat hollow enterprise--fun but forgettable. What seemed so unexpected in "Kamikaze Girls" doesn't seem so fresh or new here, and after the technicolor ebullience and emotional weight of "Matsuko", "Lala Pipo" seems lightweight despite hitting similar notes of pathos. But Nakajima and Miyano are talented enough storytellers that it's still a must-see, if only for the unrestrained performances of Hiroki Narimiya as a hostess club talent scout shamelessly preying on young women and Tomoko Murakami as an anime voice actress and unlikely predator. Both make much out of little, transcending ridiculous costumery to bring surprising depth to supporting roles that, on the surface, seemed like one-note clichés. The film's skip-and-jump chronology allows the viewer to watch a story unfold one way then re-examine it with added insight further down the line, allowing the characters to justify their actions with a level of honesty and self-awareness unusual in commercial film.

At just over 90 minutes "Lala Pipo" isn't long enough to wear out its welcome, but it's difficult to imagine Nakajima mining this vein again. He hasn't yet descended into self-parody, but a filmmaker this vibrant shouldn't be repeating himself to this extent. Perhaps that's unfair in that he just wrote the adaptation; After his early successes it's not difficult to imagine that his particular skill would be in demand, and like any industry, once something hits in movies it's bound to be repeated until the next thing comes along to replace it. It could be that contrasting serious subject matter with cheerful visual filmmaking tropes is his one trick, and if so it's a good one; Viewer expectations are so ingrained by Hollywood formula that, when the twists occur, they really are effective. There's a sequence with Murakami and a suitor which feels so much like a happy ending that when it goes wrong (and it goes WRONG) it's genuinely shocking. Occurring as it does in a fantasy-rich segment, and between two characters that have been portrayed quite sympathetically, it's the kind of sharp left turn rarely seen in films.

If this review seems at odds with itself, well, it reflects how I felt about the film. It's very engaging, but somehow the most memorable bits are the gimmicks. "Matsuko" stuck with me for days, but "Lala Pipo" was largely gone the moment the credits rolled. I would recommend it without reservation, but only to the extent that you might recommend a burger joint or a pop song: Don't expect anything more than a fun but fleeting entertainment and you'll be delighted.

Who am I kidding? You knew whether or not "Lala Pipo" was for you when you saw the phrase "talking muppet penis."

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