Cinema Obscura: Survive Style 5+
Survive Style 5+ is perhaps one of my favourite modern Christmas movies. I remember catching it first during the Leeds International Film Festival. It was being shown as a triple bill with Miike’s attempt at a kids film ‘The Great Yokai War’ and the mean and moody revenge film ‘A Bittersweet Life’. Survive Style was the unknown quantity at this point as the buzz on ‘A Bittersweet Life’ was tremendous and I was a devout Miike follower at the time. That Survive Style 5+ left the biggest impression on me is testament to how great a piece of work it actually is.
One of the things which I really hate about reviews is the entire ‘flavour’ section, it’s important to try and get an idea of what the film is about but it also means that for a paragraph or two I’m forced to abandon any attempt at analysis and just write down some key point plots and interesting facts. So stick with me for the next few paragraphs.
Survive Style 5+ is the first feature film from Gen Sekiguchi who had previously been a director of countless adverts and two short films. The film is broken up into five separate, but interlinked, narratives in a style not to dissimilar to Magnolia. One story is about a nameless man who keeps murdering his wife only for her to return as soon as he gets back from burying her, another story is about a marketing executives attempts to off her lover and keep her career going, the third story is about an English Hitman and his Japanese employer/translator, the fourth story is about a father who is hypnotised into thinking he is a bird and the final story is about a group of young small time crooks.
These narratives link and overlap throughout the film with the English Hitman being a constant presence in all of the stories. He is the reason for the father staying hypnotised, he is brought to the country by order of the marketing executive, and he is employed by the nameless man to try and sort out his undead wife. Whilst this structuring sounds confusing it actually works perfectly within the confines of the film, although certain elements of the story are far less interesting than others. More than anything else the disrupted and constantly shifting narrative plays well against the generally anarchic tone the film has.
Survive Style 5+ feels like a mental breakdown put to film, a joyous breakdown for sure, but still something so pure in its insanity and weirdness that it takes a bit of getting used to. On my first watching I spent a good hour of the film trying to work out how the director had secured the budget for a film that looks beyond lavish but seemed to have no commercial viability. Certainly it feels far too strange, far too odd and self aware to be viewed as a traditional comedy but that’s the only way you can really sell it.
Layered within the story of super powered wives rising from the grave to obtain revenge on their murderous husbands are homages to Stanley Kubrick*, the marketing executive story is littered with snippets of the executives deranged advert ideas and has a cameo from Sonny Chiba which is hilarious but utterly baffling, even the more grounded story about homoerotic underpinnings in a group of thieves is designed to the point of being artificial.
It’s a piece of work full to the brim with ideas and which is just desperate to entertain and amuse. In that sense it works perfectly well and the dollhouse aesthetic simply serves as a staging area for these bright and colourful characters to do their thing. The only problem is that the dollhouse artifice is so well constructed that you start to expect more of the film. When the mise-en-scene is so immaculate, the music so perfect, the framing almost breathtaking, it’s hard to not be a little annoyed when all you’re getting is light and airy comedy.
But that is what the film is trying to do and as such the film becomes more about enjoying the sheer visual decadence and inherent craziness of the situation. This is a film where whenever a man’s wife gets killed she is resurrected with super powers related to how she was dispatched, a film where a man is attacked by a giant stocking, where Vinnie Jones is an esoteric hitman asking people for their ‘function in life’ before depriving them of it, where a stage hypnotists kicks off his show with a cock thrusting song and dance number, where thumping electronica blasts out whenever two smalltime crooks have eye contact, where a primary school teacher mocks her classes pictures for their unoriginality, where Kubrick is referenced in an advert about male impotency and a hundred yard sprint,……
Taken for what it is, a simple but beautiful film all about trying to be entertaing then it works admirably. But there is the sense that there should be something more, Gen Sekiguchi is an obviously talented filmmaker and his assembled cast do great work (even Vinnie who doesn’t act as much as present a more charming version of himself) with the sparse material they’re give and as such you’re craving a little sustenance on something other than a visceral level.
As such it almost feels like an extended commercial all artifice and hilarity with no depth.
*There’s at least three direct references to Kubrick films during the course of Survive Style 5+ and the aesthetic choices really hark back to some of his earlier work. It’s easy to imagine that if Kubrick had a more giddy temperament this is the sort of film he’d make to relax.