All About Lily Chou-Chou(2001): Busy Breathing

I was perhaps lucky to have seen a Hollywood film a few days prior to this, Alexander Payne’s latest at the time (The Descendants) and supposedly also about a spiritual journey of sorts. The comparison was devastating.

The many times Oscar nominated film: airbrushed beauty mistaken for purity. This little obscurity: lyrical breath and pulse from life.

In 1968, there was a film made in Japan called Nanami: Inferno of First Love, one of many Japanese New Wave films about confused, apprehensive youth feeling the first pulls to join the fray of existence: love, pain, loss, all the adult stuff they so far used to know as mere words. The fulcrum of that film unraveled from this notion: if you peel a cabbage you get its core, but if you peel an onion? (this is really worth puzzling over btw, in a Zen way, and the film worth seeking out.)

The answer to that very much pertains here. This is the New New Wave: even more visual episodic movements through edges of life, even more radical dislocations from the ordinary world of narrative.

The story is about teenage high school students: cliques and counter-cliques and much tension and drama inbetween them as they discover love and power. This is woven together with a thread about music, revolving around a band named Lily Chou-Chou which supposedly is all the rage among youth. Now and then conversations are enacted in some unspecified blogosphere: this is given to us as disembodied words against a black screen. We presume we’ll get to know the people behind the nicknames and identify them as one of several youths whose lives we intimately follow in its petty cockiness and idle pleasure, or even worse that they don’t matter at all and this is purely ornamental. It actually goes a lot deeper than that.

Now we’re lucky this is Japanese. Typical for New Wave, the world is distinctly modern and vibrant. It is all about youthful rejection. But as with Oshima and the rest back in the 1960s, every rejection of tradition that we find in those films, or this one now, only serves to re-discover what was so vital and groundbreaking about Japanese tradition in the first place.

In other words: if the old Zen Masters were alive now, exceptional poets or landscape painters in their day and with a great sense of humor, they would be New Wave filmmakers.

This is as Zen as it goes and in the purest sense of the term. Transparent images. Vital emptiness. Calligraphic flows to and from interior heart. Mournful beauty about what it means ‘to read the love letters sent by the moon, wind, and snow’, to quote an old Buddhist poem. Plum blossoms at the gates of suffering.

So this is where it goes deeper than say, a new Malick film. There are no intricate mechanisms to structure life. That is fine but what this film does is even more difficult to accomplish. Just one lush dynamic sweep of a calligrapher’s brush that paints people and worlds as they come into being and vanish again. I have never seen for example a film present death so invisibly, so poetically.

So if you peel a cabbage you get a core, but if you peel an onion?

We may be inclined to answer nothing. The film may seem like it was about nothing, at best tears from a teenager’s overly dramatic diary. The form mirrors the diary after all, after Jonas Mekas. A whole segment about a trip to Okinawa is filmed with a cheap camcorder.

Let that settle and then consider the following key scene: a choir of students get together for a school event to sing a complex piano arrangement, Debussy’s Arabesque. They had a perfectly capable piano player to do it but wouldn’t let her for petty school rivalries; instead they decide to perform it a capella. So once more we may be inclined to think that this is all too much hassle for something so simple. Adults would never let things reach that stage. A compromise would be made, the piece would be played on the piano, properly.

Now all through the film we see kids listen to music, everyone seems to have his own portable cd-player for that purpose. Presumably they listen to Lily Chou-Chou, who we’re told was heavily inspired by Arabesque. We don’t actually listen to her. We never see her or the band, at the big concert we’re left outside and marvel at a giant video projection: artificial images in place of the real thing.

But on this one occasion the kids achieve something uniquely sublime: they articulate the music, actually embody it, by learning to be their own instruments and each one each other’s.

The entire film is the same effort: to embody inner abstract worlds and their ‘ether’. The method is rigorous improvisation.

Something to meditate upon.

(This is one of two best films from the previous decade in my estimation. Incidentally both were shot on digital, our new format for spontaneous discovery).

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writer on structured narrative and the changing world

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Akis Lalos

Akis Lalos

writer on structured narrative and the changing world

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