All About Lily Chou-Chou (2002)
By Jeffrey M. Anderson
Japanese writer/director Shunji Iwai does not make it easy to figure out what happens in All About Lily Chou-Chou, which opens today in Bay Area theaters. If your attention flags for even a second, you'll suddenly find yourself watching an entirely different movie than the one you were 20 minutes ago.
One thing is for sure: this movie does not tell you a whole lot about Lily Chou-Chou.
Thankfully, the film keeps returning to its one constant: an Internet chat site for Lily Chou-Chou fans. Lily is a pop singer. The movie plays us snippets of a few of her songs near the end of its 2-1/2 hour running time, and she sounds a bit like a Japanese Sarah McLachlan, with maybe a little Björk thrown in.
But her fans think she's the greatest thing since free air. They frantically type messages about her and "the ether," from which her songs magically appear. For these sequences, Iwai shows us text appearing on the screen to the sound of clacking keyboards.
The site master is named "philia," after a former band of Lily's, though I wasn't sure which of the movie's live characters this name corresponded to. In the chat room, "philia" corresponds with a new member, named "blue cat." Again, we don't know who "blue cat" is until the very end, but this time it's possible that Iwai keeps it a secret on purpose.
The movie's first third tells the story of a young fellow, Yuichi (Hayato Ichihara), who gets beaten up and bullied a lot. When his father gives him spending money, the bullies take it away as if they were entitled to it. They even make him undress and masturbate in a junkyard, but the final straw comes when they smash his Lily Chou-Chou CD.
Hayato has one friend, the much taller, richer and more intelligent Shusuke (Shugo Oshinari). When Yuichi sleeps over at his friend's, he's enchanted by Shusuke's attractive mother.
The second part of the movie deals with Yuichi and Shusuke's summer vacation in Okinawa. Three other boys join them, though I have no idea who they were. Worse, Iwai shoots the entire thing with extraordinarily bad hand-held video, as if the footage came from someone's amateur vacation films. For at least a half hour, the visual becomes just as incomprehensible as the story.
Sometime during the vacation, Shusuke turns from a nice guy into a bully. When the youths return to school in the fall, Shusuke usurps the current bully and takes his place. One of the bullies (I can't remember which) starts up a prostitution ring with one of the cuter co-eds, Shiori (Yu Aoi). And Yuichi befriends her during the film's final third.
Another girl he admires, Kuno (Ayumi Ito), a talented musician, gets picked on by female bullies and ends up shaving her head in shame and protest.
Everything ends at a Lily Chou-Chou concert -- the final straw for Yuichi.
Ultimately, this giant mess of a film really wants to talk about bullies, but it doesn't have anything interesting to say other than "bullies happen." And how all this connects to the magical mystery of Lily Chou-Chou's music remains unclear.
Yet, individual scenes, little moments, tend to carry us away. We forget for a second that we don't know what's going on or who these people are: A little luncheon between Yuichi and Shiori; an a capella school recital featuring Kuno standing off to the side, gazing at the floor, unable to play the accompanying piano; Yuichi's innocent flirtation with Shusuke's mother.
All About Lily Chou-Chou may not know what it wants to say or how to say it, but it sure speaks with gusto.