Monday, July 5, 2010

REVIEW: Have 'Em Fresh: The Laughing Stomach

Have 'Em Fresh: The Laughing Stomach

Released: 1999

Yoshihiro Ito

Sei Morikawa
Jun'ichi Dohi
Mayumi Kato
Jun Matsuda

Running time: 55 min.
Reviewed by Chris MaGee

"In the sweat of thy face thou shalt eat bread, til thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken, for dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return."

It's this quote from Genesis 19:3 that opens indie director Yoshihiro Ito's off-kilter 55-minute film "Have 'Em Fresh: The Laughing Stomach," a romance that uses food as a way of exploring sensuality, sexuality and emotional and physical possession. Sunahara likes his food. When we first meet him he's out with a co-worker at a tempura restaurant savouring every moment of his meal. No taste or moment is taken for granted, and that's what Yoshino, a beautiful woman in the corner notices about Sunahara - the way he lovingly strips the bone from the fish on his plate, the care, the delicacy and precision. Her first words to him are "If I was born a fish I would want to be eaten by you." Not your typical pick-up line, but then again Yoshino isn't your typical woman.

On their first date at a Japanese BBQ restaurant Yoshino explains how she used to be fat like a barrel, but she learned to eat more wisely. During her fat days she really hadn't tasted food, or meat in particular. It wasn't until after she visited a slaughterhouse and seen a cow butchered that that changed. It was the taste of sorrow and resignation that somehow infused the beef that turned Yoshino from simply being a glutton to a gourmand. Now she can eat small amounts of a cornucopia of different foods and appreciate each one... all except for sea urchin, a food she seems frightened of, and one that she insists Sunahara never eats even though it is one of his favorites.

Despite this strange veto on sea urchin Sunahara and Yoshino grow closer, their meals together taking on possessive and erotic overtones. Ito, who also wrote the screenplay for "Have 'Em Fresh", also fills the film with smart if obtuse dialogue bewteen his two leads - how meat tastes better just before it rots, but liver sashimi must be eaten extremely fresh, how Sunahara wanted to grow up to be a monkey and live in a hot springs resort, or the Japanese art culinary art of "the secret seasoning" and how it relates to perfume-making. A small amount of feces is introduced into a perfume so that its stink will be a counterpoint and ultimately maginfy the sweet aromas used in the finished concoction. It's these conversational tangents delivered across the dinner table, coupled with Yoshino's otherworldliness and the inter-titles that Ito uses to break his film into chapters - Broiled Beef and Liver Sashimi, Sliced Raw Fish, Jarret de Veau Bourguignon aux Nouilles, Today's Special and finally Our Sin - that kept bringing to mind Yoshihiro Ito's literary countryman Haruki Murakami.

Of course it doesn't take us long to realize that Yoshino is a strange, strange woman, so once we see Sunahara back at her apartment and we see an old Flemish Renaissance painting of the crucifixion with Yoshino worked in at the foot of the cross, a noblewoman having the head of John the Baptist, or in this case an ex-boyfriend, being presented on a silver platter it provides more confirmation than it does shock. We know that something grizzly, frightening, but at the same time sensual and delicious awaits Sunahara. Ito's use of music, something so many Japanese indie filmmakers don't get right or jettison entirely, reinforces this one tension-filled moment at a time. In the hands of any other director this lead up to an obvious horrific conclusion would cause us to lose our attention or become impatient, but Yoshihro Ito is not just any other director.

While so many filmmakers, both Japanese and Western alike, name drop such visionary directors like Seijun Suzuki and Shuji Terayama there are few if any directors who have actually carried on in their tradition. I'm not saying imitate, but actually inhabit thair playful, disturbing and surreal world and bring us stories from that semi-conscious zone of our existence. Yoshihiro Ito is one of these artists. His collection of short films "Vortex & Others" that screened at the 2009 Shinsedai Cinema Festival in Toronto brimmed with both surreal situations and ideas. With a lesser director working behind the camera many would see "Have 'Em Fresh" as a pale copy of Takashi Miike's seminal "Audition". That of course would be impossible as both Ito's and Miike's film were released at the same time, and Miike's pitch black romance is an act of cruelty while Ito's film is a journey into utter and total sensuality, sensuality that has no basis in morality or (excuse the bad pun) good taste.

While "Have 'Em Fresh: The Laughing Stomach" may not be Yoshihiro Ito's strongest narrative (I am still partial to the title film in his shorts collection "Vortex") it does represent what Ito is capable of doing in a near-feature length format. With its mix of good humour and fever dream fantasy one could easily see Ito claiming the coveted role of the one Japanese director at the moment who could tackle a screen adaptation of Haruki Murakami's more surreal novels like "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles" or "A Wild Sheep Chase". I can only hope that he can achieve the exposure and recognition for his remarkable work so we can see either that, or his own feature length film, produced very, very soon.

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