For a critic, it's always an unexpected pleasure - discovering a new director, that is. It's rare when something brand new comes around. Most moviemakers are either so indebted to the past that they are destined to mimic it, or wear their journeyman jeans like a proud badge of cinematic honor. A fresh voice, someone capable of homage but also free to reinvent their affection, is a rarity indeed. And as with most of movie making, their presence is typically felt from somewhere else in the world. Take Katsuhito Ishii. He started his career in commercials, and then graduated to short films. New to DVD from Synapse Films, Party 7 represents his second feature length effort. Inspired by a vacation he took to the American Southwest, this whacked out wonder can best be described as a spaghetti stand-off with shades of freaked out fetishism. Or maybe it's just a hilarious hodgepodge of post-Pulp Fiction quirks. Whatever the case, it's great.
For the Party 7, the Hotel New Mexico is many things. For Yakuza goof Miki, it's a place to hide - along with a suitcase of stolen cash. For Kana, it's the location of the man who owes her money...Miki. For Todohira, it's where his fiancÚ...Kana...has run off too. And for Sonoda, it's where his brother (Miki), his ex-lover (Kana), a complete stranger (Todohira), and some missing money may be found. They are all trailed by Wakagashira, a mob hitman with a strange outfit and even odder way of metering out gang justice. Of course, that's only five. Our other two revelers are hidden in a secret room inside the hotel. As a professional peeper, Captain Banana (don't ask) is in charge of schooling Okita, the son of his late partner, in the fine art of voyeurism. They take up residence in a specially designed bunker, and discuss the pros and cons of being perverts. Somehow, this septet will end up all together, locked in a bizarro-world battle of sexes, excesses, and lots and lots of yen.
Party 7 is absolutely amazing, a closed character potboiler fueled by a few bong hits of gummy-bear flavored ganja instead of gravitas. It's a remarkable display of Tarantino deconstruction, a Japanese jam on every crime thriller double-cross given the 'ain't it cool' contemporary luster. It features practiced peeping toms, inept mobsters, knock-off Armani suits, and some of the oddest sh*t (literally) you will ever see onscreen. Flowing fully formed and totally unhinged from the mind of filmmaker Katsuhito Ishii (responsible for Funky Forest: The First Contact and Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl), this revisionist riff on the American stand-off, with its collection of contrasts and clashing character types, could easily be mistaken for an out of control filmic free-for-all. There's enough exaggerated energy to make even the most morose person pass out from glee. Yet Ishii completely understands the language of film. Here, he plays with expectations, making audiences pay attention to every bit of narrative detail before making everything payoff perfectly in the end. Will it all make sense? Probably not. Does it seem like some manner of entertainment epiphany is reached? Hell-friggin'-YES!
In many ways, Party 7 feels like the beginning of a Twin Peaks like TV show, a cast of eccentrics with secrets to hide (and eventually reveal) tossed into a mystery and made to show their cards. And since Ishii is not obvious with his dimensions, these people still have facets to disclose. We'd love to find out what happens after the hitman arrives and things start 'splodin', but our director is clearly saving that storyline for a sequel (even if it's one made up in the audience's head). Instead, Party 7 parades around like its celluloid stool don't stink, and we drink in the amiable, unconventional aroma of its arrogance. This is not a film for the faint hearted, or ADD-addled. While the style can be both frenetic and kinetic, Ishii demands you sit patiently and drink everything in. How else would you explain an opening poo joke that doesn't pay off until the last credits have rolled? Or what about a character named Captain Banana who constantly reminds us that he's already explained where such a moniker comes from? It's easy to get lost here - blink and you'll miss an important detail - but Party 7 is also more than just a carefully constructed set of situations. How the story is told is as important as what's going on.
Ishii applies a mishmash of sensational styles here, from the opening anime (which gives us important clues into who these individuals are) to the random genre jumps between sci-fi, comedy, whodunit, and thriller. There's a certain cyberpunk feel to some sequences, a tweak at technology and how it's desensitized our domestic life. But then this is one filmmaker who doesn't live and breathe one philosophy only. We get traditional duty and honor, stereotypical gender stances (men want sex, women want cash) and a few fizzy shots of unexplainable cinematic schnapps. Party 7 is not a victim of overkill - in fact, it's safe to say that Ishii pulls back when he should really go whole roast hog. The peeping room is the perfect example, as is the opening reveal of a couple of pant-less male employees. This is a movie that thrives on the shocking, that seeks the numbers above 10 and tries to amplify everything several notches past them. One hopes that this director revisits this oddball neo-noir hotel again. Our first stay with the Party 7 is indeed a sensational one.
Though it definitely looks eight years old, Synapse Films has done a fantastic job with this DVD release. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image looks wonderful, the dichotomy between the dingy hotel room and the ultramodern peeping place superbly rendered. There are times when the film feels too dark, as if Ishii took the whole noir aspect a little too seriously. But overall, the transfer is tight, with clear colors, a professional attention to detail, and a limited number of source issues. Make no mistake about it - Party 7 is one good looking movie on the digital domain.
Equally impressive is the Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround sound mix provided here. Offered in the original Japanese (no half-assed dubs here, thank you very much), the aural elements are crystalline and very sharp. The music helps enhance the mood, and the occasional lapses into decibel challenging volumes see no distortion whatsoever. The presentation is not exactly immersive, but all the channels seem to get a decent workout in the process.
One of the best aspects of this DVD release is the wonderful added content Synapse has provided. There's a stellar Making-Of featurette that offers lots of onset insights, and the alternate ending answers some of the questions left open by the original finale. The various TV spots and trailers help us see how the film was sold in Japan (call it "grindhouse lite") and the storyboard version of the film (running over an hour!!!) literally illustrates how Ishii approached the screenplay. The essential extra here, however, is the video interview with the director. Coming across as casual yet considered, Ishii discusses the origins of the plot, how he thought up certain shots, and why the movie plays out the way it does. For anyone curious about the backstory behind Party 7, this fantastic package definitely provides such data.
Hopefully this review indicated just how much this critic loved Party 7. It's definitely an acquired taste, since director Katsuhito Ishii is worried about more than just telling a straightforward story. Instead, one could look at the final product as a series of detective denouements that lasts for nearly 90 minutes. Once we get our situational set-up, this is the kind of film that can go off in dozens of different directions - and more or less does by the time the credits roll. Easily earning a Highly Recommended, it's important to remember that Party 7 is eight years old. Ishii is still making movies, and it will be interesting to see where his muse takes him next. Funky Forest: The First Contact certainly indicated an undying artistic spirit and a tendency toward the outlandish and avant-garde. What's clear is that, no matter how far back in the past it remains, Party 7 definitely offers a glimpse into this filmmaker's future. And this is one newly minted devotee who can't wait to follow his next notion.