Christopher Machell Toronto

Toronto 2019: First Love review

★★★☆☆

Japanese horror maestro Takashi Miike is back with this dive into comic book-style, hyper-violent crime noodling. First Love is not among the director’s best work – not by a long shot. Nevertheless, there’s enough of Miike’s trademark bonkers sensibilities to recommend this pulpy tale of crooked cops and warring Yakuza.

First Love opens in the moments before cocky young boxer Leo’s (Masataka Kubota) enters the ring for a career-defining fight. Not heeding the advice of his manager, he suffers a disastrous defeat early in the fight. As his head hits the mat, the scene is intercut with the neon-soaked backstreets of Tokyo as a gangster’s neck meets the wrong end of a sword. As his head rolls into the gutter, its eyes still blinking, his body wanders about in the rain before finally collapsing. So far, so Miike.

Indeed, the film’s plays out almost like an assemblage of the director’s favourite stylistic tics. Tensions between the Yakuza and the Chinese mafia are mounting, with nefarious agents – including a dirty cop and mid-ranking Yakuza Kase (Shôta Sometani) – seeking to capitalise on the discord. Meanwhile, Monica (Sakurako Konishi), a sex slave being held by the Yakuza to pay off her father’s debt, is haunted by nightmarish hallucinations of her father – clad only in a sheet and y-fronts, naturally – while she fantasises about being rescued by her ex-boyfriend.

Leo receives a terminal diagnosis of a brain tumour, explaining his recent ignominious defeat, while also setting him on a reckless path of acting with no heed of consequences. With such an array of players, the first act is heavier on plot than the story, though as the pieces are arranged, the film gradually pulls focus. Japanese TV personality Becky steals the show as Juri, the enraged gangster’s moll whose rampage is worsened by Kase’s every bungled attempt to kill her. In a more streamlined – and frankly more interesting – screenplay, she would have been the main character, but here she is merely an entertaining side-player, a prop for a well-staged running gag.

Nevertheless, when the players are finally assembled, the motivations clear and their momentum at full tilt, the results are spectacular. First Love is at its best when Miike leans into its silliness: a gunshot Kase rubbing the stolen drugs into his wound; a Scooby-Doo style chase-and-fight sequence among the aisles of a closed hardware store; a brief animated sequence that exists only as a way to defy physics. This is pop-punk filmmaking – vibrant, disposable, and shallow. Still, it’s difficult to care about the nutritional content of your confectionary when it tastes this sweet.

The 44th Toronto International Film Festival takes place from 5-15 September.

Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell