Takeshi Miike's film The Mole Song: Undercover Agent Reiji , screening at MIFF 2014.
Film festivals are often thought of as places of high culture, temples of devotion for the cinema at its most artistic and refined. They’re not the place where one would expect to see, say, the image of a nude man strapped to the hood of a sedan being driven through a car wash, nor hear the howling laughter from the audience with which it was greeted. But that’s precisely what we got in Takashi Miike’s The Mole Song – Undercover Agent Reiji, a wild yakuza romp that played at the Melbourne International Film Festival this week.
Later in that film the same man – a hapless undercover cop – is desperate to defuse an altercation with a butterfly-loving yakuza deputy, so he stabs himself in the gut and attempts to tie a butterfly knot in his intestines (a "gutterfly"). This prompted near hysteria from the Melbourne audience.
Miike, who is sometimes referred to as the Japanese Tarantino, is a figurehead of the branch of international film that can loosely be organised under the term "extreme cinema". It includes the work of fellow Japanese director Sion Sono, as well as much-heralded Korean filmmakers Park Chan-wook and Kim Ki-duk, and is characterised by its high degree of violence and outrageous gore, often mated to a pitch-black comic sensibility.
Miike is a MIFF regular, with 12 of his films having played at the festival since 1998. Last year, we had Lesson of the Evil, about a serial-killing high-school teacher; in 2012, there were two features: Ace Attorney, a courtroom comedy, and Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai.
Like Miike, Sion Sono is a prolific filmmaker and a MIFF regular: five of his films have shown here over as many years. This year, the festival screened Why Don’t You Play in Hell?, in which a collective of amateur filmmakers (whose group name is unprintable here) get mixed up with a yakuza family desperate to make a movie starring their boss’s daughter. Blood is spilled, in swimming pool quantities.
Sono's film had the audience in stitches at such gruesome sights as a hapless young man wandering plaintively through a yakuza melee with a hand chopped off and a samurai sword embedded in his skull. Also riotous was a scene in which the boss’s daughter forces shards of glass into the mouth of her reprobate ex-boyfriend, then gives him a slow French kiss.
Such content may sound pretty irredeemable but it plays like gangbusters. Which makes it all the more puzzling that in many cases festival screenings are the only chance local audiences have to see these films on the big screen. With the exception of Miike’s 13 Assassins, which received a release through Icon Film Distribution after its festival appearance in 2011, few of these films have made their way into commercial Australian theatres.
Local distributor Madman has had some success in the home entertainment market with Sono and Miike’s films, releasing Ace Attorney and, soon, Why Don’t You Play in Hell? (among others) on their Eastern Eye video label.
Christian Were, from Madman, suggests that a showing at MIFF can act as “exposure” for a DVD release, especially when the extremity of the content provides, as Were puts it, “fuel for the social media age”.
Indeed, the packed-house audience reaction is key to the promotion of these releases.
MIFF programmer Al Cossar says Miike and Sono are masters at working an audience up, and the reactions they provoke are extraordinary – to the point, sometimes, of surprising even seasoned MIFF staff. "Watching the films with a crowd can be a completely different experience from how we [the festival programmers] see them initially, and it's always a wondrous thing to watch an audience respond in elation, surprise, and shock at some of these films in unison."
This communal experience belies the assumption that Sono and Miike’s work is only for a small audience of freaky thrillseekers. Which is why it’s fitting that they have a place at festivals like MIFF, where the customer base is ideally positioned to have their horizons of taste expanded.
MIFF is a big enough festival to act as a broad church, and programmers are conscious about engineering a space where “intellectually rigorous” films can sit alongside the cult oddities. Cossar likes to think that viewers will be encouraged to “embrace both sides of that equation”.
Sono and Miike’s films play at MIFF not only to cater to their cult audience, but also to encourage discovery in others. In the counterpoint between high and low, art and trash, refined and coarse, festivals are themselves the home of extremes.