|Directed by Yukihiko Tsutsumi, 2002, 70 minutes, starring Maho Nonami and Eiko Koike.
I was raised in a very leftist, hippie family in the 1980's that left me with a lot of nonconformist tendencies that continue to haunt me into my third decade. But one of the most problematic was my complete apprehension towards rules and authority. Some (my grandmother, the truancy office, et al.) would argue that a little rule goes a long way, something I can't help but agree with; I've got good manners, I'm tolerant and respectful of others, and the imposition to be polite and good-natured isn't an imposition at all - it's just good old-fashioned, classic American Southern charm (ya'll). But others (my mother as a young and rebellious parent in 1986, the vast majority of teenagers as well) felt that rules were an edict of restriction, and that any restriction was a compromise of the self. Of course, as she's grown up and shed the hemp, she's matured to realize that you need not be an extremist in child-rearing, and as I've grown into my own person I of course have matured to realize that my mother has ruined me for life towards structure and boundaries. Thanks, Mom.
In filmmaking, structure is something both revered and reviled. It can create the basic premise for a film, that backbone that the film needs to be more than loose imagery and indecipherable, lush atmosphere. It can also create a climate of conformity, the likes of which plague mainstream filmmaking in the United States as well as abroad. Sometimes structure can make something cohesive and digestible; other times it can make art painful and allow the director to be perceived as anal. The Dogme 95 collective, for example, is a fairly accurate modern representation in avant-garde filmmaking of the limits directors and writers might put on themselves in order to achieve a certain vision apart from the mainstream, and even from others out in left field. But what of Japanese filmmaking?
Well if heavy-hitting exports like Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Shinya Tsukamoto have taught me anything, it is that good extreme cinema does not ordinarily equate to structured cinema. Shinya Kawai's Dual Project, though, is something entirely apart from that notion. An idea that came to the director one night while drunkenly wagering with fellow directors Ryuhei Kitamura and Yukihiko Tsutsumi, Kawai's edict was thus: create and film a story with only two principle characters battling in one principle location, with the entire production being filmed in a time span of a week or less. Kitamura's entry was the mystical samurai film Aragami, a film I've seen and been bewildered by and that's that; it's a movie with a lot happening in it. Tsutsumi, though, delivered something a lot more minimalist that, somehow, manages to be both mainstream and avant-garde: 2LDK.
"I want to kill this bitch."
Lana and Nozomi are two actresses in Tokyo sharing an apartment - "2LDK" being Japanese shorthand for "two bedrooms, living room, dining room, and kitchen." They are two very disparate women sharing the confines of an apartment in the city centre. Nozomi (Koike) is keen on cleanliness, a perceived neat freak by her roommate, who labels everything in the refrigerator according to who bought it; Lana (Nonami) is stylish and fashion-conscious, but seen as an air head by Nozomi, who teases her roommate about men and dating. The two are already at breaking point with one another's personalities at the film's start. That tension boils to the surface when Lana announces to Nozomi that the director of a movie that they have both auditioned for has named both as top candidates for the film's lead.
The opening half-hour displays a minimalist storyline that could be seen by many as slow. This would be disingenuous to the film. The dialogue between the two actresses is subtle and striking: they are the exact opposites of one another. Nozomi is a classically trained theatre actress, who loves small productions, and is ashamed of her early work as an advertising pin-up. Lana is a film actress (of unknown success, though her roommate indicates that she hasn't come terribly far), as well as a clothes horse, whose purchases of Cartier watches, Chanel glasses, and Miu Miu shoes Nozomi checks off in her head as evidence of her roommate's vapidity and consumerist mentality. At first they have civil conversation, being friendly with one another. Inside their heads, though, they shoot insults in all directions, to immense hilarity. Soon, though, this civility disintegrates into outright open hostility. Nozomi becomes angry that Lana used her shampoo, which further evidences Lana's claim that Nozomi is anal. In retaliation Lana deletes a message on Nozomi's phone from a potential suitor, all the while elbowing her roommate about her bookish nature and her lack of success with men. But when Nozomi realizes that a drink of hers from the fridge has gone missing, she immediately places the blame on the shoulders of Lana. "You took it!" she instigates, to which Lana replies, "Don't piss me off". And then it gets awesome.
What happens after that moment is an eruption of confrontation and violence, but since a fight is a fight, there really isn't any relevant point in explaining the ins and outs of it. Suffice it to say, the last two-thirds of the film are choreographed brilliantly, and the dialogue, the action, even the chainsaws and electrocutions, smack of intelligence, humour, and a great mix of over-the-top hilarity and (somehow) restrained violence. There is something for everyone, and indeed, a character for everyone. The table is set early on, and it is up to the viewer to decide whether they prefer Lana or Nozomi. Neither is particularly likeable. Nozomi is bookish and anal and, to be honest, a bit mean about cleanliness and organization, while Lana is vapid and vain and, from the results of her phone calls, a bit of a pester to those around her who refuse to answer her calls from her cell phone. In my research of the film, I didn't find any evidence that the director knowingly made this an ideological film about the battle between brainless consumerist culture and being a highly-motivated scholar, the two extremes of personal choices in modern young people today, but there is an extremely prominent emotional battle prior to the physical fighting between the callousness of the vain mannequin actress, and the bitter antipathy of her well-educated and more traditional roommate.
I like 2LDK for a lot of reasons. The first thing that really struck me is the tone of the film as a result of its firm setting; similar to the creepy claustrophobia of Miike's Audition (or to the shocking "normality" of the events in Hirokazu Koreeda's arresting Nobody Knows), 2LDK's taking place in an ordinary (albeit upscale) residential apartment absolutely defines the events of the film. Being in this apartment incubates what we see on the screen, and creates the tiny world that epitomizes the premise of the Dual Project; once you begin watching this film, you only care about these two women, and your only interest is what is going to happen to them, and how it will end. The nuances between them are entertaining, but at the same time the silences that exist between the two in such close quarters allow for a very personal viewing experience; I found myself in my own head deciphering which of these two actually had the high ground, which I would agree with, who I would want to be friends with, and anticipating in wonder at how that quiet tension would erupt on screen. It's a revealing film, with not everything is laid out beforehand; there is certain character development in the seventy minutes the viewer allows the film to consume their attention, and different shades of character are revealed piece by piece on the way towards the finale - for Lana, it is the pang of regret, and the heavy burden of guilt; for Nozomi, it's a shocking callousness and complete ruthlessness. Both characters contradict the stereotype presented in the first scenes, and that's just damned refreshing.
It also makes for a decidedly engaging film experience. Watching this with a group of friends, a lot of people will pick their "favourite" to root for as the battle takes off. And unlike a film like Battle Royale, with dozens of characters and non-stop violence that by logic leave only the smallest percentage for those viewing to attach themselves to in the hopes of their favourite character having survived to the end, it is a much better game with two people; no matter how much you emotionally invest in these women, you're left thinking that there's a 50/50 chance the one you dig on will live. There is a lot of logic to the film, and a lot of shock, but it's a tight piece; it's relatively short, and it's got excellent pacing which makes it totally enjoyable and easily digestible. The director was discerning in what he chose to do with his characters and story, and as loathe as I am to say it, this film (with its blood and fighting and gruesome finale) somehow manages to perfectly represent minimalism. It's also, from a purely entertainment-oriented standpoint, damn funny. Have you ever wanted to see a nervous breakdown being self-soundtracked to heavy metal?
At the end of the day this is a great film for watching over take-out with your girlfriend, or for introducing a buddy to Japanese cinema. It's easy to digest, it's great fun to watch, and the film itself is so deceptively simple that it makes the quality of the feature overall shocking. It's neither pretentious in its presentation of themes and intellectual arguments, nor simplistically dumb in the lax way it shows them to the audience. In any other market, with any other director, this film could've easily steered into a gutsploitation project with overblown proportions and ridiculous resolution. But Tsutsumi nails this one. Good job! Unlike several other films I've watched during my time with Snowblood Apple, this is one that I can easily see myself rewatching in the near-future, just for my own fun. And in today's extreme Asian cinema market, I don't have the opportunity to say that very often; what a surprising and wonderful film!
Snowblood Apple Rating for this film:
Bitterly funny punchline: dozens and dozens!
Films in a Similar Style: Aragami, Battle Royale
*** Recommended ***
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Snowblood Apple Filmographies
http://www.tlareleasing.com/details/product_details.cfm?id=203970 - TLA Releasing's site, the Region 1 distributor of 2LDK, which even includes a Japanese television feature about the film! (it's worth checking out the rest of their site, too, for those interested- they have one of the most diverse distribution catalogues of nearly anyone I've ever seen!)
http://www.monstersatplay.com/features/phillyfest2003/fest-2ldkm.php - Review of the film after its having been shown at the 12th Philadelphia Film Festival in 2003.
http://www.girlswithguns.org/short/short0164.htm - Girls With Guns review of the feature.
http://www.dvdverdict.com/reviews/2LDK.php - A judicial (pun intended) DVD Verdict review.