Dead or Alive

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Jun 16 09:41:58 MDT 2001


Elvis Mitchell of the NY Times had a hard time figuring out Takashi Miike's
Hanzaisha (Dead or Alive), now showing at NYC's Cinema Village. Compared to
other Asian gangster movies, he found it simultaneously boring and
cartoonish. Perhaps his expectations were geared to the work of other
better-known directors like Japan's Beat Takeshi, whose work Miike's bears
a superficial resemblance to, or John Woo, whose combination of
sentimentality and balletic shoot-out scenes can be seen in "Dead or Alive"
as well.

In reality Miike is subverting this genre and not operating from within its
parameters. Perhaps being a reviewer at the establishment NY Times
prevented Mitchell from seeing the director's true intentions, which was
not only to upset existing film conventions, but to deliver an apocalyptic
world-view that is hardly comforting to somebody expecting conventional
entertainment.

Three groups of men figure in "Dead or Alive." There are, first of all, the
cops who are led by Jojima (Sho Aikawa), a laconic, impassive and
tightly-wound figure who appears capable of enormous violence at the
slightest provocation. As such, he probably was intended as a sort of
homage to the characters played by Beat Takeshi in his own off-kilter
films. Next, there are a group of gangsters who are 'zanryu koji'--Japanese
children left in China after the war who return to Japan decades later only
to find themselves unable to fit in. Even their children, as one character
says, feel they are "like Japanese but not Japanese, like Chinese but not
Chinese." They are led by co-star Riki Takeuchi, who not only bears a
superficial resemblance to Chow Yun-Fat, star of many a John Woo film, but
who also has the same kind of smoldering, introspective manner. The 'zanryu
kojii' are caught in the middle between the cops and Yakuzas, who are not
only trying to fend them off, but Chinese gangsters as well.

In "Dead or Alive", being Chinese or 'zanryu koji' is practically
synonymous with a kind of turbo-capitalism that has its heart in a mainland
China that rules on the basis of "naked, shameless, direct, brutal
exploitation." In contrast, the Yakuza are hide-bound by tradition, who get
by the way they have always gotten by: prostitution, gambling and drug
sales. Meanwhile, the chief of police can be found on most days on the roof
of the precinct building playing wooden flutes that he has hand-crafted
himself.

Without a home and feeling no obligation to Japanese society, the small
group of 'zanryu koji' decide to make their own place by trying to take
over the Shinjuku underworld and the drug trade from Taiwan. They commit
brazen acts of assassinations, rob a bank at noonday, then plan an
all-out-assault on the remaining Chinese and Yakuza gangs.

"Dead or Alive" starts off with spectacular cross-cutting scenes of a naked
woman plummeting to the pavement with a pound of cocaine in hand, a gay
drug dealer being slit in the throat as he performs anal sex in a nightclub
restroom, and a Chinese gang boss erupting noodles from his belly as it is
riddled with bullets--all accompanied by a pounding guitar-heavy film-track.

However, much to the disappointment of Elvis Mitchell, most of the rest of
the film consists of lower-keyed, if not funereal, scenes. The 'zanryu
koji' have a picnic in a graveyard, where the mother of their boss lies
buried, while rain falls on them. The cop Jojima is mainly shown at home,
where his marriage is barely functional. His wife complains that he sleeps
on the sofa, while his daughter is openly contemptuous of him. When he
makes her a gift of a cell phone, she complains that it is not digital,
just a "typical Japanese cop phone."

The sense of disconsolation is probably best conveyed through the scene in
which a member of the 'zanryu koji' gang, in this case a native Chinese
man, steals part of their bank robbery loot in order to finance relocation
back to China for himself and his mother. When she asks him where he got
all the money, he says she shouldn't worry. It is just to get them back
home, where they belong. She answers that she doesn't want to go home
again, making the film's leitmotif explicit.

In one scene, that I--alone in the audience--found richly comical, a
college professor is lecturing a nearly empty hall about the crisis of
Marxism, while students sit reading magazines or gossiping. The 'zanryu
koji' gang leader sits slouched in his seat, waiting for his younger
brother who is a student.

In the film's conclusion, the three groups once again square off and the
film rockets off to its--literally--apocalyptic conclusion. While it makes
no sense in conventional narrative terms, it is certainly meaningful in
terms of the social and economic impasse of East Asia today.

Louis Proyect
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