When I reviewed model, turned actor, turned writer/director Masato Tsujioka's debut film Lost By Dead, it struck me as the kind of debut cloaked in too much inspiration while showing some promise. The discs trailer for his follow up, Divide looked intriguing, so I was glad to pick it up and see how his second foray into writing/directing turned out.
The film focuses on two high schoolgirls: Yuki (Ayano Yoshikawa), the rebellious, streetwise leader of a punk girl gang of call girls and Saki (Mariko Kuranuki), the goody-goody shoes student with a troubled family home life who has been looking for her long lost sister. Normally I'd consider this a big spoiler but since it is pretty apparent, it is pretty easy to guess who ends up being revealed as Saki's strayed sis. Yeah, there aren't a lot of suspects- if any- and it's a two character piece, so it is very obvious. There is also another "divide" in the film, another semi-message of duality, but I wont spoil it other than saying it comes across as gimmicky and immaterial.
Saki's home life goes to hell, missing dad, her drunken/druggie/crazy? mom dies, and she is taken in by a pervert peeper teacher. She tries to find her long lost sister via texts sent to Shu (Shinichiro Osawa), a writer at a teen-help magazine. Saki knows her sis is in the drug/prostitution underworld so she takes up a job at a hostess bar and hopes to garner any word of her whereabouts.
Yuki's boss is Ryu, a contact wearing sociopathic oddball reminiscent of the glam rock-Jim Jones cult leader in Suicide Circle. Ryu has some vague plan to cause social upheaval by sending his guys out to fight in the streets and furthermore, when he thinks Yuki is shorting him and losing control of her girls, insists that she be killed.
The trails and troubles of teenhood, being young, adult aware but still somewhat innocent is an oft used subject. Divide doesn't really address any of the issues (drugs, sexuality, etc) in a unique or inventive way. It hits all the beats, goes through the motions, but doesn't probe into the emotional depths. Its a popular genre in Japan, pretty done to death, and watching Divide one cannot help but think of superior examples like Bounce KO Gals and Kamikaze Girls.
Tsujioka boldly labels the film "A Masato Tsujioko World." Based on Divide and Lost By Dead I'd say that world is one of rapid editing, loose camerawork, and extremely thin narrative. Divide is only an hour long and the DVD featurette reveals that the entire film was shot in a week. Normally I'd give him some leeway due to the rushed schedule but Divide has the same problems as his debut- a severe lack of tight, cohesive scripting.
I have no problem (actually I love it) when a film maker wants to be anarchic and throw out conventional narrative structure and formal/stiff film making setups, clearly areas that Tsujioko wants to embrace. Problem is, he's got the story and the concept, it is just poorly told and executed, all idea and very little substance, and barely fluid. For instance, the idea of a girl looking for her missing sister via going undercover in the sex trade is a good one, but what actually happens to Saki when she does this is very little and in the end completely immaterial to finding her sis- which is sort of nonchalantly thrown in the end because the film needs to resolve itself. Likewise, the cult/gang leader leading some kind of revolution, neat idea but the low budget and poor direction means Tsujioko inserts the same staged fight scene a few different times (representing different occasions), filmed from the same flat angles, with amateurishly intercut B&W footage of battleships firing, and again, the idea means nothing in the grand scheme of the story.
The DVD: Pathfinder.
Picture: Anamorphic Widescreen. First, I'll cut some slack for being a low budget DV flick. The usual lower end DV quirks are present, middling color, murky contrast, and some blocky artifacts. The transfer doesn't help matters very much, resulting in some terrible ghosting/motion bur present with the slightest bit of onscreen movement.
Sound: 2.0 Stereo, Japanese language with optional English subtitles. Again, we find the ills of being a low budget film. There is quite a lot of poor audio recording with muffle and distortion, lines that should have been over/redubbed. There is even a scene where it sounds like the recording was done with a bad speaker phone.
Extras: Trailer (+). --- Director Bio (text). --- Still Gallery. --- Making of Featurette (19:46). Takes you though every day of shooting. Basic behind the scenes stuff. Unfortunately not every bit of dialogue&text is translated.
Conclusion: Fairly poorly made short film with lacking story development and ragged production values. I find it hard to recommend Divide even as a rental, simply because as a DVD and a film, I don't see it appealing to many viewers. Really, the ideal presentation would have been to throw it on as an extra to the Lost By Dead DVD.