Thursday, 15 October 2015

TAG - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Sono Delivers Japanese schoolgirls in uniform, ultra-violent bloodletting, staggering imagery and Buddhism. Yes! Buddhism! TADFF 2015

Top: 3 of many instances wherein Matsuko is sprayed with blood.
Bottom: 3 of many causes for said blood being sprayed upon Matsuko.
Tag (2015)
Dir. Sion Sono
Starring: Reina Triendl, Yuki Sakai,
Mariko Shinoda, Erina Mano, Maryjun Takahashi, Sayaka Isoyama

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Sion Sono's Tag opens with a sequence which, is not dissimilar to a two-by-four being slammed repeatedly into the audience's face. This is merely the beginning.

A schoolbus full of happy, smiling Japanese schoolgirls carries them to a resort for an extended field trip. They're chatty, giddy with excitement and even go so far as to engage in a glorious pillow fight. Ah, but there is always one who is left out of the frivolity. Matsuko (Reina Triendl) sits alone writing in a notebook.

She is, what our Japanese brothers and sisters refer to as a "Hafu" (half occidental, half oriental) and she is not only the butt of cruel, racist jokes from her classmates, but one of them tries to steal her notebook to read it. Matsuko wrestles it back, but her pen falls on the floor. She can't reach it, so she drops down to the ground to retrieve it.

Fate intercedes perfectly here, as she stays down to examine a beautiful white feather which, is lodged perfectly in the pen's lapel clip (the whole bus is full of white, fluffy down from the earlier frolics). Feathers, of course, will prove to be an important recurring image. Most of the time they're white, but sometimes they're blood-red.

What happens next is so jaw-dropping, sickeningly blood-drenched and terrifying that Matsuko's actions not only keep her alive, but her athletic prowess allows her to escape in a harrowing chase down a lonely country road littered with corpses and even more acts of carnage, in which our heroine escapes by ducking down to how she was posed in the bus.

Matsuko begins to run - harder and faster, it seems, than she's ever run in her life. Oh, and does she ever blast. Matsuko madly runs and runs and runs in a horrifying sequence which rivals that of Marilyn Burns being chased by Leatherface in Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (and even utilizing a similar nightmare logic to the material).

The movie never lets up. Even when things slow down to offer brief solace as well as very odd explanations as to what's happening, the idylls never last long before Sono throws a shocker at us and the characters - one shocker after another, increasing in intensity, imagination and originality. As scary as the movie gets, it's replete with a tremendous sense of dark humour - nothing tongue in cheek, but all rooted in the world of the picture.

I'm not familiar with the Japanese graphic novel "Tag". Nor, it seems, was Sion Sono when he chose to make Tag. He had a vague idea of what the manga was about and he liked the title. Seeing as he's one of the most original filmmakers in the world (Why Don't You Play in Hell?, Tokyo Tribe), the result of this approach has yielded one of the most insanely entertaining pictures of the year.

Matsuko is not a contestant on "Reach for the Top"

With its emphasis on alternate universes, Tag is not unlike a Sono-style version of Christopher ("One Idea") Nolan's Inception, or to a lesser extent the Wachowski's The Matrix, but with the added bonus of pretty Japanese schoolgirls in uniform, glorious bloodletting and none of the pretension of the aforementioned American titles. Tag is also vaguely Bunuelian, not just because of the satirical jabs at society and class, but Sono even goes so far as to introduce us to a strong main character, but he eventually gives her three faces, all played by three different actresses (That Obscure Object of Desire, anyone?).

To even begin summarizing the plot would be tantamount to an act of heretical selfishness. All one really needs to know is what's been divulged already: young schoolgirl escapes horrific death and breathlessly races forward for 85 minutes of screen time to avoid being caught and similarly decimated as everyone around her. I will reveal that there is a "game" aspect to the proceedings, if only to suggest what a terrific film Tag is, especially in comparison to something like the boneheaded disgrace of the The Hunger Games pictures.

For a film that is so infused with bloodletting, horror and nerve-jangling suspense, it is surprisingly dappled with sensitivity, deep friendship, love, soaring moments of joyous sentiment and even, I kid you not, the principles of Buddhism.

Matsuko's loyal friend Aki (Yuki Sakai) is always around to lend support and love. (The other girls tease the two, incessantly calling them dykes.) In fact, it is Aki who provides the simple, soothing words, "Life is surreal. Don't let it consume you." Most importantly, it is also Aki who tells Matsuko that no matter what happens, "Our destiny is decided. We're trapped within it," but adds the sage advice, "You can trick fate. Do something spontaneously that you'd never do." Eventually, this becomes Matsuko's greatest weapon against the horrors flung at her.

Sono's images are nothing less than spectacular - whether displaying horror, good humour, love and peace - he delivers compositions that are both breathtaking and rooted firmly in the film's tone and narrative.

Left: Director Sono finds an ideal angle to show us the schoolgirls' panties.
Right: Matsuko luxuriates in one of many alternative dimensions.

Oh, and in addition to everything but the kitchen sink, Sono gives us, the kitchen sink (with cherries on top). The kitchen sink turns out to be bone-crunchingly spectacular martial arts and the cherries on top are that all of the gorgeously choreographed kicks and thwacks are girl-on-girl.

Yes, ladies and gents, cat fights.

Tag is proof positive that contemporary Asian cinema in all forms continues to make pretty much most everything else, especially from the American studio system, pale in comparison. Chances are good that we'll eventually get an American remake and one can predict even money odds on the inevitability of it being dreadful.

The picture is a dazzler, as are all of Sion Sono's films, but this might well be my favourite of them all. Frankly, you do yourself a disservice to not see it.


Tag plays at Toronto After Dark (TADFF 2015).