Scrap Heaven Review
Rebels without a cause? Let’s try to establish that. Scrap Heaven is the latest film from 69 director Lee Sang-il, dealing with a desensitized, misguided youth culture of today as they use anarchy and bizarre forms of logic as the basis for their actions. Obviously it’s not the first and nor will it be the last in a long line of films trying to make statements about various taboo issues and society in general, but at least with Sang-il we’re given a fresh attempt; Scrap Heaven shows an impressive director in the making.
The film begins by introducing our three main characters. Kasuya (Ryo Kase) is an admin clerk on the police force who is trying to get onto the homicide division; Tetsu (Jo Odagiri) - a “professional” toilet cleaner and Saki (Kuriyami Chiaki), who works at a pharmaceutical company. One evening, while on the way home the three of them happen to meet on a bus which has just been hijacked by a suicidal political secretary. Forcing them to play JanKenPyon (Rock, paper, scissors) he starts a cruel game of Russian Roulette, in which Tetsu turns out to be the unlucky one. After the gunman has an awkward encounter with Saki he turns the gun on himself. The film then picks up three months later. Kasuya is still traumatised by the incident which has left him unable to sleep properly, and so he visits Saki’s workplace to get the appropriate medication. On his way home he spots Tetsu who survived his ordeal and is now getting into fights with local pushers who are trying to accost young women for their sexual services. Using his means as an officer Kasuya saves Tetsu from a certain demise and in turn Tetsu repays him by presenting an enticing alternative to his boring day job. Tetsu has recently come up with a revenge for hire plan. By working out of a toilet stall they advertise for anyone with a problem to visit them upon which they’ll take appropriate measures to rectify things. Meanwhile Saki is attempting to create a liquid bomb, and like Tetsu and Kasuya, she wishes to use it to get back at a society held responsible for placing their lives in danger.
Lee Sang-il’s Scrap Heaven is an interesting but awkwardly divided piece of work. As a film that depicts three young and quirky characters that abuse the system in order to gain satisfaction for what is ultimately missing in their own lives it’s very funny, even hilarious at times. Had the film simply stuck with this simple narrative then we’d be looking at a picture of utmost brilliance. For its first hour the picture rallies off a series of fun skits that range from Kasuya and Tetsu’s revenge for hire business taking on cases involving child abuse and medical mishaps, where we’re treated to some very laugh out load moments, despite a feeling of immense immaturity. It’s here that Sang-il’s characters relish their new found calling in life as they follow a path of self righteousness that just happens to afford them huge amounts of pleasure, more so than any amount of cash that they might receive for their services. It works nicely because the reality of it is that these actions are generally just small potatoes, nothing that’s largely threatening toward the entire world. Meanwhile we have Saki, who, when left to her own devices tinkers away at trying to build the ultimate bomb, which again gives her an unprecedented amount of satisfaction, though certainly it’s the beginning of a much darker leaning. These moments account for an extremely energetic film in which the viewer happily goes along for the ride, even liking the central characters despite knowing that they probably shouldn’t. Though Sang-il doesn’t build upon any given character to a great extent he easily establishes their situation in life and enforces a respectable enough commentary.
Lee Sang-il shouldn’t really have too much of a difficult time though in fleshing out the three protagonists – I could even go so far as to say antagonists. He has close to two hours with which to produce a satisfying take on each individual. Clearly though his main interest lies with Tetsu and Kasuya; this leaves Saki to flit in and out of the picture, making her one of the more mysterious additions to the film. Each character is fairly basic, with Tetsu and his deluded philosophies, Kasuya with his heroic daydreams whilst being stuck in a dead end job, and Saki – the vulnerable, introverted girl. Much of the first half doesn’t deal with convoluted plot strands, but as the director gets into the second half of the picture he tries to work in an understated romantic element that he’d merely hinted at earlier on. It’s difficult for the audience to become wrapped up in Kasuya and Saki’s relationship because it’s filled with little more than obscure moments, although there does seem to be a sense of purpose whereby Kasuya and Saki, who are obviously single and alone, can find someone else in life for comfort. But again, the brief and ambiguous nature in which it plays out stops the inclusion from generating anything but indifferent feelings.
It’s when Scrap Heaven heads toward the final forty minutes that things take a dramatic turn, and suddenly we’re left with a less than subtle piece of cinema in which several ideas are scattered. Not only do these character’s motives begin to break down and make lesser sense than initially expected but so too does Sang-il’s direction become a tad misguided. After such an incredible build up, when it comes down to it, we’re being addressed with subjects relating to suicide and individual stances toward righting the wrongs of the world. These points are simply indicated by Scrap Heaven, especially when suddenly the people who were just having a laugh now feel the need to become involved in serious law enforcement and government matters; yet as a whole it does very little to address them in any worthwhile manner. For a film purportedly interested in providing a social commentary and giving a meaning for why its characters do what they do it seems lost as to its actual agenda. The main problem is that the sudden shift in attitudes, with regards to Tetsu above all, tries to cotton on to a grander scheme, and yet these characters are not truly nihilistic people. Tetsu begins to spout what he thinks are wise and philosophical words as he bangs on about changing the world with some kind of political intent. But in fact he’s done none of this. If Lee Sang-il’s goal is to highlight the pretentiousness of people such as Tetsu then he’s done a good job, but I can’t help but feel that his ultimate vision is somewhat skewered. In the end his statements and ethical ideas offer absolutely nothing that we haven’t seen before or already know ourselves, which is why he should have continued with his pleasant comedic set up. It’s almost hard to believe that one traumatic event involving a suicidal man can inflict the kind of selfish resentment that these people harbour toward the rest of the world, and prior to that incident their lives already seemed depressing anyway - “So whose fault is that?” we’re left to wonder. Strangely enough he does finish on a relatively feel good note, making a point that we perhaps shouldn’t meddle with things too much or we’ll only make matter worse, but there’s a sense that he’s continually trying to cancel out each action with a more inappropriate one and getting a little lost along the way.
Scrap Heaven is a great looking film however. Although most of it relies on blue and grey tones that help to expose the cold environment that these people have withdrawn themselves into Lee Sang-il infuses his picture with plenty of style and grace. There are several scene transitions that show an inventive quality as the director goes from one character to the next, while other areas show an enormous amount of ambition, which pays off during moments such as when Saki tests her liquid bombs from the roof of her apartment building. The director’s camera moves with wonderful precision as it literally tracks each character’s movements during fights or running sequences, tilting and manipulating surroundings in the process. Sang-il has a brilliant eye and knows how to tell a story through a lens; he even manages to do a remarkable job of taking the clichéd dream sequence and placing in twists that totally fool the viewer. Pleasant CG work illustrates drastic changes and with the help of his composer he highlights ominous scenes with an interesting soundtrack, ranging from Jazz to instrumental rock.
The performances are also splendid: Jo Odagiri slightly overplays his hand, though I suspect it was at the request of the director; I’m sure he’s not meant to be quite as bizarre as his character Bijomaru from Azumi. The problem is that clearly Tetsu isn’t mad; he’s a troubled being going through a family crisis involving his ill father, yet Odagiri resorts to the kind of maniacal flailing that would otherwise see him thrown into a mental institution. When toning it down and acting like a normal, playful person or confronting his father during some of the sadder moments he acquits himself well. It’s not an easy role to play and due to several conflictions with his character it can be difficult to put up with him, meaning that trying to sympathise with his plight is nigh on impossible, and certainly his philosophical rant toward the last act takes away from the desired effect. Ryo Kase likewise has a dual role of sorts: mild mannered office worker for the police and also a criminal to some degree. He does tend to play second fiddle to Tetsu, coming across as more of an easily brainwashed sidekick than an independently thinking being, which is why soon enough he does wise up and take action. Kase is a good performer though who has to deal with a fair amount of physical and mental anguish and managing to convincingly pull it off. Kuriyama Chiaki is an actor who I’ve grown to appreciate the more I see her. Forget that she’s attractive, too many actors have that quality as it is. Her career didn’t start out too well, in fact I didn’t like her performance at all in her major debut Shikoku (not counting the lesser roles in the fairly dull Hanako the Toilet Ghost and Gonin prior). She was far too wooden and failed to settle into her role. But actors learn from their mistakes and it’s clear that as time has gone on she’s refined her methods. Battle Royale did wonders for her and showed off some of that real hidden talent, while Kill Bill secured her top status as a bad ass villain which, she seemed to draw upon for Miike’s The Great Yokai War. She’s a very fun actor who now gets 100% into the characters she plays, if given the right opportunities. In Scrap Heaven Sang-il allows her some moments to grab the audience’s attention. Her most memorable turn here is when she reacts to a situation early on in the film which is initially played out as a comical number. It’s moments like this when the director does get away with successfully branching comedy and drama when placed in the same scene together, with several other moments popping up here and there. As such we can feel for Saki more than any of the other characters in the film, despite Kuriyama’s relatively low-key role.
Japanese distributor Emotion presents Scrap Heaven on DVD with a 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer. The image has a constant soft look to it, mainly during open shots, while close ups fair far better. Funny then that Edge Enhancement should appear, when we all know it does nothing to sharpen an image. The disc does reproduce the palette well and the harsh grey tones and dingy locations appear natural and free from any authoring difficulties. Contrast appears a little high, but nothing out of the ordinary, and there’s a slight hint of natural grain that I suspect should be heavier.
The only sound option we have is an original Japanese DD2.0 track. There are no problems to report; dialogue is fine, the soundtrack is lively and for a film of this calibre there’s little else to expect from it.
Optional English subtitles are also available, again reading very well, with not much to report other than the occasional full stop missing.
The main feature on the disc is a 35 minute making of and interviews piece. To start with each actor gets his or her own “Scrap of” title (ex: “Scrap of Kase Ryo) which is followed by interviews of each discussing their characters, while interspersed are various clips featuring behind the scenes shooting. “Scrap of Unused Scene” is a collection of deleted scenes which are presented with timecodes; after each scene is presented we’re given a look at the making of them. Some of the scenes are very interesting, particularly the first one involving Saki and another scene involving her and Kasuya engaging in a lengthy conversation; others are brief. “Scrap of Behind the Scenes” is exactly that – a look at location shooting which is kept fairly brief before it moves on to interviews, this time with “Scrap of Lee Sang-il” and “Scrap of Emoto Akira”. “Scrap of Climax” finishes off the piece with behind the scene glimpses and interviews.
A 4 minute piece looks at the director and three main cast members getting together for a discussion before heading to a press screening. “Title Call”, lasting for just 50 seconds, is basically just the three cast members calling out the film’s title, presumably for advertising purposes. It’s quite amusing due to the actors cracking up each time. Finishing of the disc is the theatrical trailer and two TV spots.
It could just be that I’ve misunderstood Scrap Heaven, but if that’s the case then it is likely because its intentions just feel misguided. The film tries to address several subjects in a manner that’s not exactly conventional, which ordinarily I wouldn’t mind, but it’s disappointing that after such a superb first hour it gets into dealing with its bigger issues which end up stripping it of the fun it initially began with, while not doing a great deal with them in the process. There’s no reason why films such as this can’t be funny and make a point, but Lee Sang-il sadly feels the need to head into darker and less interesting territory and in turn damage an initially promising feature. Still, Scrap Heaven does offer a lot of fun moments and it oozes style, which can only leave us to anticipate the director's next film.