The Internet/pop idol generation gets its first epic in Shunji Iwai’s “All About Lily Chou-Chou,” an all-encompassing study of coming of age and coming to terms with your dreams that digs deep into the teenage soul and sticks to the ribs. A tad rambling at almost 2½ hours, but with an emotional reach that justifies its initially leisurely development, drama about a star-struck young teen looks set to win plaudits on the festival circuit prior to niche business at arthouses.
Iwai’s rep in the West still largely rests on two highly metaphysical movies, “Love Letter” (1995) and “April Story” (1998), of which the former in particular deals with emotional bonds that can hardly be expressed in words. “Lily” continues this theme but adopts a far more epic scope and maverick style, recalling the tone (but not look or content) of his only previous large-scale production, “Swallowtail Butterfly” (1997).
Where “Swallowtail” was a cheeky, wild-ride critique of Japan’s consumerist, yen-worshipping culture, “Lily” goes one step further, showing teenagers in thrall to virtual emotions generated by pop idols and fan sites. Though Japan reps the most extreme example of this electronic youth culture, pic’s observations are universal.
Film has been long in the works, starting as a draft script (inspired by Iwai watching a concert by pop diva Faye Wong in Hong Kong), then an unfinished novel, then an interactive novel fed by contributions to a Web site (Lily-holic) created by Iwai, and finally this movie. Though hardly noticeable, the whole picture was shot on high-grade DV, aside from two sequences (a holiday and a rape) clearly filmed on a regular Handicam.
Opening immediately sets up the movie’s long, emotional arc by immersing the viewer in the world of 14-year-old Yuichi (Hayato Ichihara), who lives in a rural town with his mom, her boyfriend and the latter’s son. For almost a reel, Iwai bombards the screen with email messages between fans of (fictional) pop idol Lily Chou-Chou, and Yuichi swaying in the rice fields as he listens to the singer’s semi-Bjork-like trip-hop tunes.
Pic, ever so gradually, fills in the specifics of Yuichi’s life, largely devoted to the usual travails of junior high school and stealing CDs with his buddies. In the first of several beautiful moments of calm, as Yuichi cycles off with one of Lily’s billboards, Iwai introduces the lilting strains of Debussy, which are to become a musical counterpoint to Lily’s songs throughout the movie.
Debussy and Eric Satie were the first, claim Lily’s fans, to write “ethereal music” — but “Lily was high in the Ether even before she’d heard Debussy,” they add. These are kids who are tripping out not on drugs but on a virtual, electronic-based world of CDs, email, the Internet and idolatry.
Opening half-hour could take some trimming before pic flashes back a year earlier to 1999. Picked on at school, Yuichi’s rescued from some femme bullies by Shusuke (Shugo Oshinari) and first learns about Lily when he sleeps over at Shusuke’s house and sees her poster. Film settles into a more regular style as it draws the ups and downs of early teen life and developing hormones.
Back at school in the fall, personalities start to harden, with Shusuke turning into a gang leader and Yuichi ordered by Shusuke to watch over a classmate, Shiori (Yu Aoi), whom Shusuke is forcing to go with older men for money. Yuichi himself is more interested in another loner, Yoko (Ayumi Ito), a brilliant pianist who quietly plays Debussy.
Pic’s central section is a sometimes confusing, often impressionistic collection of competing characters, all with small stories of their own. Not for the first time, however, just when Iwai’s grip on all the diverse material seems to be loosening, pic suddenly comes together in a magical sequence — here, a school concert at which the kids perform a complex a capella arrangement by Yoko.
In a single stroke, Iwai signals the connection between Debussy (repped by Yoko’s character) and Lily (Yuichi/Shusuke), laying the ground for a mind-blowing leap 20 minutes later when the musical dots are suddenly joined up.
Final act, spread over half an hour, reveals further layers to the emails that pepper the movie and climaxes in Lily’s live concert.
For all its digressions and occasional flat moments, Iwai’s movie is a remarkable, acutely involving one, working on an emotional level that can only really be expressed through music — a strong component in all of Iwai’s pics. Takeshi Kobayashi’s haunting songs for the fictional Lily (played by a complete unknown, uncredited), as well as the use of Debussy and Satie nuggets, drive the film throughout, which would otherwise have been an over-discursive coming-of-ager.
Performances are of a piece, at the service of the helmer’s vision. Technically, pic further pushes the DV envelope, with a transfer to 35mm that’s almost unnoticeable, apart from a slight luminescence to the colors that gives everything a suitably irreal feel.