"Crowd-pleasing" is not an adjective typically associated with Japanese director Sono Sion. For a decade or so, he's been celebrated among cinephiles for his abrasive, challenging films like the four-hour long "Love Exposure" and the post-2011-tsunami "Himizu," which was something of a favourite here in Venice two years ago. But his latest, " Why Don't You Play In Hell?," is something of a departure — an ambivalently loving tribute to both the action movie and filmmaking in general, not so much blood-splattered as blood-drenched. It seems destined to be a midnight movie cult hit, but still feels very much a Sono film.
The plot is... hard to put into words. Ten years before events proper begin, a teenage group of would-be movie makers, the Fuck Bombers, were formed, bonded by a love of classic action flicks. Meanwhile, young Mitsuko (who stars in the toothpaste ad that opens the film, the jingle for which echoes incessantly through the rest of the runtime) comes home to find that her mother has massacred a group of gangsters sent to kill her Yakuza boss father Muto (the familiar Jun Kunimura).
When things pick up again, the Fuck Bombers are on the verge of falling apart, Mitsuko is a diva-ish aspiring actress with a sincere but slightly wet admirer, and Boss Muto's tentative truce with his rivals is about to bloodily implode just as his wife is about to be released from prison. Somehow, all of this eventually collides as the Fuck Bombers are enlisted to make an on-the-hoof action film that both captures the upcoming gang battle and gives Mitsuko a starring role that would make her momma proud.
From the off, when things get underway with a pastiche-y James Bond riff, it's clear that this is Sono's first entry in, and grand homage to, the action movie world and the references come thick and fast: “Hard Boiled,” “Game Of Death,” “Kill Bill,” even “ Die Hard.” Things culminate in a truly spectacular extended melée that sees CGI blood and limbs flying, with more carnage than in the rest of Sono's career up to this point.
Yet it's not just some lark, either: the opening scenes, with kids mucking around with Super 8 cameras and improvising dollies with roller skates, are reminiscent of recent filmmaking-themed Bildungsromans like "Son Of Rambow," "Super 8" and even " Be Kind Rewind," and, in many ways, the film is Sono's loving tribute to his profession and vocation. There are a lot of in-jokes and references best appreciated by those who've spent a little time on movie sets. It's not entirely glowing — the director is careful to emphasize the blood and sweat (in this case, very literal) that goes into making a movie, and ultimately remains somewhat ambivalent as to whether it's worth it, when all's said and done, even if he's undoubtedly sentimental about film (literally: the Fuck Bombers are enticed into the scheme with the chance to shoot on 35mm).
Mostly, the film's very funny, Sono displaying a sense of how to frame and time a visual gag that feels positively Zucker-ish. But there are real stakes, and bursts of real feeling too — most effectively in the relationship between Mitsuko and her father — and once characters start being sliced and impaled, you feel for almost all of them. Even with everything that goes on in the film, it's not without its melancholic moments.
Those adverse to Sono's previous work should be warned that he hasn't exactly abandoned his trademarks. For instance, it's incredibly noisy, with most of the characters screaming their dialogue, with the rest of the mix being basically bowel-shaking in order to keep up. In general, the words "Do you think we should tone it down a bit?" appear to have never passed the filmmaker's lips, whether to actors, heads of departments or while writing the screenplay. But anyone with a passing familiarity with Sono's oeuvre knows what they're getting themselves into, and for those coming in fresh — particularly action fans and cinephiles — they couldn't ask for a better entry point. [B+]