Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Jul 24, 2020 11:41 am 
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Siblings and simulations

Kazuto (Kazuto Osawa) is a lonely loser, owing rent on his little flat and failing in acting class due to emotional weakness: he faints whenever he feels stressed, which is almost constantly. Squeezing a "boob" hand exerciser helps only a little; he gets likewise little help from constantly watching an old videotape of a crude dubbed TV show called "Rescueman." Then Kazuto runs into his younger brother Hiroki (Hiroki Kono), from whom he's been estranged for the five years since their parents died. The handsome, confident Hiroki was supposed to be starting his own company but he too is a thespian of a sort. The "Special Actors" team to which he takes Kazuto offers actors for hire to tweak or simulate situations on request of paying customers, to alter situations. They can, say, provide a "thief" a boyfriend can "subdue" to impress his girlfriend.

Kazuto starts easy - crying at some relative's wake, laughing at somebody's comedy show. Then a more challenging and more lucrative job comes along that requires the participation of the entire Special Actors team. A girl offers her entire savings for them to shake up a crooked pseudo-religious cult called Musubiru that has charmed her sister and is about to take over the country inn they inherited from their parents. They must infiltrate the cult and expose it so the sister will leave the cult and hold onto the inn.

This project occupies most of the rest of the movie. In fact, the opening credits don't come till 25 minutes in, a sign of Ueda's characteristically sly, self-reflective approach in Special Actors which, though smoother and more conventional (and perhaps more heartwarming?) than his famous first bfeature, likewise relies on the comedy of clumsiness, on the "real" effect of an illusion that's inadequate. Aren't bad actors the best people to play (real) bad actors? That's his assumption, anyway.

The Musubiru cult winds up being a crude but memorably nightmarish version of charlatans exploiting the gullible whose "secret plan" the actors capture and expose. It's hard to forget the zillion-year-old "leader", a tall, "mute" boy with permed hair; the shrill shills in suits; the cheap souvenir gizmos sold for outrageous prices; the odd hand gesture of cult greeting, and the rest. Even if the scenes lag a bit in the middle, Ueda shows the same penchant for raucous, chaotic action he used so well in his first film.

Burt of course though Special Actors is both entertaining and ingenious, it arrives with an impossible act to follow - Ueda's 2017 hilarious surprise hit debut One Cut of the Dead (whose Japanese title means "Don't Stop the Camera!"), which famously made something like a thousand times what it cost to make, having been a runaway hit in 250 theaters in Japan and earned $30 million abroad on a $25,000 investment. So we have sophomore blues with Special Actors and no, it's not as brilliant or as outrageously fun as One Cut of the Dead.

But some have been overly disappointed, like James Hadfield in Japan Times. I don't think as some do that the surprise ending is obvious; on the contrary, the deception-within-deception effect is quite trippy - even if this movie may be a tad more interesting to think about than to watch. The whole theme of using amateurish actors for "useful" deceptions in real life is wonderful.

It's also fun as one can learn in detail from the Japanese Wikipedia article on this film that the Ueda's screenplay development involved extensive workshopping with all the 15 core cast members involved plus several more, incorporating the actors' ideas and personalities more deeply into the action. Those cast members included people who'd acted three times in ten years (Kazuto Osawa, the bedraggled "lead"), other's who had not yet acted, still another who was just an office worker who was a big fan of One Cut of the Dead. The tendency to pass out under stress - almost anyway - was taken from the young (36-year-old) Ueda's own reported experience.

Opening Film. Live Q&A with director Shinichiro Ueda was scheduled for July 17 at 9 pm (ET).

As mentioned I've used the Japanese Wikipedia article as a source using DeepL and found it quite helpful; it's hard to find a cast list elsewhere. There are numerous reviews in English listed on IMDb (see also Letterboxd).

Special Actors/ スペシャルアクターズ 109 mins., premiered in Japan September 25, 2019 and [I think] debuted at Rotterdam Oct. 2019. Opening night film for the all-online New York Japan Cuts 2020, via which it was screened for this review.

The festival is entirely online this year. Anyone in the US can watch it, paying a small fee for each individual film, from July 17-30, 2020. Go HERE to access the films

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