Nagisa Oshima's anger is readily apparent in his 1968 film "Three Resurrected Drunkards". It's just that he expresses it through such mischievous, comedic, colourful and silly ways that you may not notice it right up front. A film that starts with three university students frolicking on a beach in what could be an outake from a Japanese musical skit comedy show doesn't immediately conjure up the idea of political protest. Make no mistake though - Oshima's outrage and his displeasure with his country is palpable as the film and its accompanying skits, dreams and surreal events unfold like a crumpled up piece of paper trying to return to its original state. What reveals itself is a condemnation of not only Japan's treatment of Koreans, but also Korea's own internal split and the usage of Korean immigrants to fight for the U.S. in Vietnam. Oshima doesn't seem to have any problems in calling out government, police and individual citizens on their behaviour.
Members of the pop group The Folk Crusaders play these awkward, gangly kids who seem to think recreating that famous Eddie Adams photo of a Vietcong guerilla being executed is as good a way to spend their time at the beach as any other. During this opening re-enactment scene, a goofy, slightly askew pop song plays in the background that sounds a bit like Alvin And The Chipmunks recording a new song just as the LSD starts to take hold. It's actually a million-selling single by The Folk Crusaders entitled "I Only Live Twice" (the significance of that title comes into play at the mid point of the film) and it breezily tells of how heaven is a place where "the booze is good and the girls are pretty", but warns that all may not be what it seems. An understatement to be sure. As the boys go swimming, two sets of their clothing are swiped from the shore (by a hand coming up through the sand) and some money and other clothing is left in their place. The swipers are two illegal immigrants from Korea and they hope that these students become the targets instead of them. When the boys try to save some money by undercutting the cost of a package of cigarettes at a local shop, they are immediately suspected of being the on-the-lam Koreans (as the shop keeper tells the police, who else other than illegal Koreans could possibly get the price wrong of a pack of smokes?). The Korean uniforms they have donned (left in place of their clothes) probably helped a bit too. A local Korean woman also mistakes the lads for the "stowaways" (after all it is "Crack Down On Stowaways Week") and wants to help them while running away from her own problems.
It's a series of mistaken identities, run-ins with the actual Koreans (who keep forcing them back into the Korean outfits), chases, captures and escapes. If you still thought there was some possible link to straight narrative reality at this point, it's dispelled in a 3 minute sequence that sends our heroes from the Japan Sea (set adrift standing up in a row boat by the police) to Pusan Harbour where they are captured and sent to the front lines in Saigon via the East China Sea. It's vaguely reminiscent of The Monkees crossed with Monty Python (not that Oshima was influenced by either - it's just the closest touchstone I can make from a Western perspective), without quite as much humour or charm from the leads. Of course, Oshima isn't making an outright comedy. The film makes a sudden shift as the students find themselves on the streets of Tokyo doing man-on-the street interviews in a documentary style. Their interviews are limited to a single question: "Are you Japanese?" And each time the response is: "No, I'm Korean." "Why?" "Because I am." The documentary feel at this point of the film is important since it's where the students seem to actually learn something. This becomes evident in the next seismic shift in the film - at the halfway mark, the film resets itself completely and begins again on the beach. The intrepid trio are again going through the same motions and once again get their clothes stolen, but they react differently now in each situation. Different circumstances arise because of this, but things always seem to end them back in the same predicaments. Eventually they just begin insisting that they are actually Korean themselves.
As to whether the film succeeds as entertainment, that's debatable. It's gorgeous looking with a very wide palette of bright colours and creative framing of scenes, but it struggles a bit at times to maintain interest due to its lead actors and a somewhat plodding feeling to it at times (and it clocks in at only 80 minutes). As someone who enjoys non-linear approaches to stories, I found it ultimately satisfying but a bit frustrating at times. Where it does succeed, though, is in getting its point across. It's odd structure actually helps convey Oshima's message by reinforcing certain aspects and pulling things together towards the end. Like that crumpled piece of paper re-expanding, small portions present themselves and help paint the full picture in the end. It just may not be a pretty one.