NYAFF 2010: DOMAN SEMAN Review

[Doman Seman screens July 5th and 7th at the Lincoln Center with director Go Shibata in attendance.]

For fans of out-there cinema, especially of the anything-goes Asian variety, Gô Shibata's new film presents something of a conundrum:  it's wild, wacky, subversive-minded, undeniably experimental, and often innovative... yet feels, paradoxically, excruciatingly conventional. In short, I've rarely seen a film with such radical aesthetics, not to mention politics, that's nonetheless so humdrum. How did this happen?

Expectations run high for Doman Seman largely on the strength of Shibata's stunning alt-serial killer film Late Bloomer, which featured a disabled protagonist but managed to be anything but gimmicky. Walking a fine line between chilly objectivity and intimate subjectivity, Late Bloomer used a wide range of filmmaking devices opportunistically in order to underscore its central question: can we ever really understand what drives someone like this?

Doman Seman takes a similar kitchen-sink approach to the stylistic tropes it's willing to employ but the results never provide a sense of the form-follows-function elegance of the earlier film. Rather, Doman Seman ends up feeling like a grab bag of tricks and obsessions from the film world's most notable mavericks as we get intentionally goofy martial arts sequences à la Minoru Kawasaki, a Haneke-like interest in surveillance and video as metaphors for both cinema and social dysfunction, a Lynchian penchant for creating portentous menace out of simple ingredients, a Godardian disregard for some of commercial film's storytelling techniques, and the off-handed transgression of Takashi Miike, especially when it comes to positioning sex dangerously close to violence.

If one had to pare down this laundry list of influences and echoes, one could focus on the last two items and decide that the phrase "diluted Godard meets diluted Miike" might suffice in summing of Doman Seman. Of course this description might still sound enticing to many cinephiles (myself included), but in the end they're apt to be disappointed by how we never get a solid sense of Shibata-the-artist, let alone a compelling narrative. It's the kind of movie that critics might find diverting as they struggle to note all the conceptual bells-and-whistles on hand, but if your goal is to sit there happily munching popcorn while being entranced by fearless creativity and memorable characters, well, think again. My advice: go and rewatch Sion Sono's Love Exposure instead for an example of an ambitious but offbeat work whose reach doesn't exceed its grasp.

Which is all really too bad because it's not as if Shibata has eschewed a sense of fun in crafting this arthouse-cum-midnight movie; he just seems to have gotten the proportions wrong and chosen ingredients that aren't exactly fresh. Things start promisingly, as we encounter an intriguing couple in the person of layabout Shinsuke and his nymphomaniac lover. When Shinsuke finally finds gainful employment, it's in the service of the mystical yet streetwise Abe, who eventually teams him homeless free thinker Enoki. Their mission? Um, well, that's where the narrative starts to get hazy, with an agenda that seems to include overthrowing both capitalism's excesses and the mass media's stranglehold on human relationships.

Amusing in fits and starts, the film fashions a semi-dystopian world in which attacking the homeless is a national form of recreation and where everyone seems to be in insurmountable debt to shady moneylenders. At the apex of this shaky social pyramid is "Kato the Catwalk Doman Seman," the powerful head of a modeling agency but also a behind-the-scenes player in the money-lending industry. With a lack of both screentime and sharp dialogue or motivation, Doman Seman (also the name of a tower, by the way, in case you want bonus symbolism) doesn't prove to be an effective counterpart to Shinsuke, our presumptive point-of-view character. Instead, this role is taken on by anti-hero Terada, who in his youth committed a one-man massacre of moneylenders and is now struggling to find his path in life. This plotline is arguably Doman Seman's greatest narrative asset as Terada stands accused of a new series of similar murders.

The problem is, this strong mystery-thriller element seems either to bore Shibata after he has played with it for a spell or, worse still, strikes him as a form of selling out the film's pronounced anarchistic themes by providing something as old-fashioned as "genre" to the audience. "Why be a slave to standard notions of story?" the film seems to assert, thus offering the promise of liberating viewers from the chains of standard capitalist entertainment. The problem is, it doesn't offer us much by way of an alternative. Total anarchy can certainly be fun when on the big screen, but I prefer my doses to be via short film rather than two-hour-plus features.

To be sure, Shibata's sheer talent is on display in nearly every minute of the too-long runtime. We're treated to slo-mo, fast-mo, long takes, kooky montage, multiple exposures, handheld lyricism, and occasionally astounding effects (sometimes astounding in their blatant cheapness)... but the end result is the proverbial "flashes of brilliance" experience rather than one that's really satisfying. It's the kind of movie that looks awesome in a trailer but then you realize that's because the trailer coheres much better than the actual movie. 

We want to root for Doman Seman the entire time we're watching it, such is Shibata's virtuosity and creative energy. And one respects his commitment to trying to shock us in addition to making us laugh and think. Unfortunately, on all these levels he's only around 50% successful.

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