Fei-hong Hiroshi Mikami
Ageha Ayumi Ito
Ryou Ryanki Yosuke Eguchi
Mao-fu Andy Hui
Ran Atsuro Watabe
Shen-mei Tomoko Yamaguchi
Reiko Nene Ohtsuka
Suzukino Kaori Momoi
(Japanese, English and Mandarin dialogue)
Starting as a typical slice of hip young Japanese cinema but growing into a truly epic portrait of money-obsessed, consumer-driven Tokyo, “Swallowtail Town” is a futuristic allegory that actually goes its two-and-a-half-hour distance. Fans of helmer Shunji Iwai’s first theatrical feature, the beautiful, dreamlike “Love Letter” (1995), will be in for a shock here, as pic is stylistically the opposite, far closer to his other works like “PicNic.” Its length also poses a problem for offshore distribution, though there’s no doubt with this movie that Iwai is definitely a talent that’s arrived. Film was the opening night attraction at London’s first Pan-Asian Film Festival.
Putative central character in the large, ensemble cast is the shy young daughter (Ayumi Ito) of a prostitute who is taken in after her mother’s death by Glico (Chara), a hooker-cum-singer from Shanghai. Glico lives in a barrio called Aozora on the edge of “Yentown,” a dumping ground outside Tokyo for immigrants and scavengers united by a single obsession – money. Glico, who has a tattoo of a swallowtail butterfly on her chest, names the girl Ageha after her body decoration.
For its first half-hour, the movie meanders around sketching the characters and atmosphere of the place, where Japanese, Mandarin Chinese and English form a multicultural linguistic soup. A plot of sorts hoves into view when a yakuza is thrown out a window after getting rough with a hooker and, when getting rid of his body, the locals find an audio cassette (of Frank Sinatra singing “My Way”) lodged in his stomach.
More to the point, Fei-hong (Hiroshi Mikami), also from Shanghai and Glico’s lover, discovers the tape contains magnetic data for forging 10,000 yen notes. With their ill-gotten gains, Fei-hong and his merry band purchase a warehouse and convert it into Yentown Club, with Glico as the main attraction. However, the success of the club is overshadowed by the fact that various undesirables – including longhaired gangster Ryou Ryanki (Yosuke Eguchi), some Chinese wackos led by Mao-fu (Hong Kong actor Andy Hui), and the dead yakuza’s boss – want the Sinatra tape back.
Further complications ensue when a big record label tries to sign up Glico and, to help sales, persuade her to become Japanese and shrug off her Yentown pals. Complicated final act has Ageha trying to re-establish the Yentowners’ solidarity while Ryanki (who’s actually Glico’s long-lost brother) and the other bad guys do battle for the tape.
Though made in 1996, the pic is more pertinent than ever – given recent economic developments in East Asia – in its basic attack on Japan’s all-consuming religion of material success and the might of the yen. Iwai’s approach is maverick, and cast as an often over-the-top mixture of genre elements and pop culture. But as the story unfolds and the characters develop, a real shape emerges from the seemingly scatter-gun style.
Despite the large amount of hand-held lensing, antsy editing and jumpy approach to narrative, “Swallowtail Butterfly” is actually a movie made with considerable care. Noboru Shinoda’s lensing stresses pastel colors to striking effect, and when Iwai puts the nervy style on hold (as in a poetic flashback to Ageha’s youth when she is being tattooed with a butterfly like Glico’s) the supremely controlled director of “Love Letter” seems not so far away. Takeshi Kobayashi’s broad, romantic score – playing against the movie’s visual style – is a major plus in shaping and injecting emotion into the material.
Large cast blends extremely well, with popular local singer Chara flavorsome as the sexy Glico, Mikami excellent as the manic Fei-hong, and Ito cute as the quietly determined Ageha. Few westerners will be in a position to grasp the subtle free-flow between Chinese and Japanese in the dialogue – and both Chara and Mikami’s Mandarin is hardly 100% kosher – but the pic is generally very successful in portraying a futuristic, multilingual society in which established cultural barriers are shown to be unimportant. And for most of its length, it’s also a hell of an entertaining ride.