Review: First Love – Fantastic Fest 2019

Takashi Miike’s First Love is a love story, just in the loosest sense. It is also a film about addiction, allegiances, overcoming past trauma, and Yakuza violence. Yep, it’s a Yakuza crime film, but Miike layers this intensely-plotted crime story with humanity that perks up at the most unlikely times.

The plot involves a boxer with a brain tumor, a drug addict working as a prostitute to pay off her father’s debt, a cop who breaks bad in order to swindle two warring gangs over a bag of dope, and plenty of gang-affiliated characters with a penchant for violence. Throughout the film, essentially every character crosses paths with the others, and it all leads to a bloody final sequence (it’s Miike; what did you expect?).

While Miike’s direction of action is vibrant and exciting, this climax is the low point of this otherwise brilliant film about humanity stretching across all seedy walks of life. (Also: one of the most entertaining and funny revenge plots in some times acts as a fantatstic subplot). The climax may be overlong, replete with standoff after bloody standoff, but the rest of the film is a whirlwind of fast-paced plotting that is exhilarating to watch. As rapidly as it moves, Miike nevertheless finds plenty of moments to pause for quiet character moments, and this mix of fast and slow pays off beautifully.

The major character relationship of consequence, that between boxer Leo (Masataka Kubota) and prostitute Monica (Sakurako Konishi), is brilliantly drawn. It may come off quaint and simplistic, particularly as it is situated within the backdrop of campy Yakuza violence, but it is also earnest and real. Both actors stand out among their peers as being able to sell both the comedy and the drama of their characters’ situation. Kubota, in particular, gives the standout performance.

Miike has made over 100 films, yet he somehow manages to remain at the top of his game—fatigue or apathy have not yet set in. Yes, the quality of individual films may vary, but Miike is a master. First Love, I believe, will stand out as one of his masterworks. It blends tones with a deft directorial hand, and it never stops being entertaining (even when the climax reaches its sixth or seventh blade duel).

 

First Love: B+

 

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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)

 

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