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Masahiro Kobayashi is a festival-circuit director who got a late start in life. In 1980 at age 26 he journeyed to France determined to make contact with Francois Truffaut, only to discover that the New Wave icon was out of the country. Thirteen years would pass before his career as a feature writer-director got underway. Kaizokuban Bootleg Film, Kobayashi's sophomore effort from 1999, is a minimalist, self-reflexive film noir absurdity about a duo of unlikely partners in crime. Although screened at the Cannes Film festival (under the category Un Certain Regard) it has waited ten years to receive an American release.
In interviews Kobayashi has stated that his budgets are so small and his schedules so tight that he must often rewrite his scripts to accommodate unforeseen events. Bootleg Film was planned and launched almost without preparation, when one of its name actors suddenly became available for just a few days. The semi-abstract crime film is set amid snowy mountains and dominated by long dialogue scenes filmed (sometimes not very steadily) in a moving car. Kobayashi works perhaps too hard to cultivate a quirky tone. The first title cards in his odd opening credits proudly -- and redundantly -- inform us that the film we're watching is in Black and White and in the 2.35: 1 'scope aspect ratio.
The story is a morbid "Odd Couple" gangster sitcom. Retirement-age thug Tatsuo (Akira Emoto, a veteran of police and yakuza films) and natty policeman Seiji (Kippei Shiina, a popular younger actor) make odd traveling companions on the way to the funeral of a beautiful young woman, Fumiko. The unlikely friends have more than a little to talk about, as Fumiko was Seiji's wife and Tatsuo's lover. As the men bicker over details of the past, each remembers Fumiko via stylized flashbacks. When the conversation becomes emotional, Tatsuo almost loses control of the car.
Tatsuo eventually lets Seiji in on a secret: he's carrying the dead body of his own brother in the car's trunk. While they're arguing at a rest stop, a young couple gets nosy and discovers the corpse. A double kidnapping and a poorly thought-out murder plan follow in close order. Seiji protests that his professional integrity as a policeman is being compromised, yet abets Tatsuo's warped scheme. Very little of the action makes normal narrative sense. When the friends rendezvous at an abandoned chalet, Seiji casually announces that he's stolen Fumiko's nude body. As he carries it through the snowdrifts for an undetermined purpose, previously murdered victims suddenly revive, as good as new...
Bootleg Film's visuals alternate between catch-as-catch-can traveling shots on the highway (a lot of bumpy roads out there) and mannered compositions in the snow. Some of these are compositionally quite arresting. To show his heroes firing functioning pistols, which in Japan are difficult to obtain for any purpose, Kobayashi uses the crude but reasonably effective gag of cutting to black for a second or so at every gunshot. The technique fits in well with the director's overall minimalist style.
Although Japanese crime films of the 1950s and '60s were frequently more innovative and daring than their American counterparts (see Eclipse's fine Nikkatsu Noir Collection), Masahiro Kobayashi's film is content to drift aimlessly while leavening its dialogue with frequent cinema-student references to other films. Both of our heroes and even their victims compare what they experience to scenes from films by Francis Coppola, Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino, especially Reservoir Dogs. Although not as derivative of the new breed of Tarantino wannabe crime pictures, Bootleg Film relies on the notion that quoting other directors is inherently hip. Observing Seiji and Tatsuo pointing guns at one another point-blank, the two kidnappees immediately begin arguing over which gunman is supposed to be Harvey Keitel.
Facets Video's DVD of Bootleg Film is a reasonable B&W transfer that favors light grays, as if the original cinematography lacked strong contrasts. The transfer is enhanced and the source element in good condition; the encoding is adequate. Facets provides no extras, not even one of its informative insert pamphlets. Illuminating information on director Kobayashi is not easily found, and more detail on his life and films would have been welcome.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Bootleg Film rates:
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