[While this weeks episode of the Rowthree Cinecast hasn’t quite been published yet, I am kind of kicking myself for overlooking the Canadian DVD release of Sion Sono’s Hazard. Its release was delayed by due weeks in an unfortunate manufacturing error, just another little bump on this films way to the public. It was one of my favourite little films that I caught on the festival circuit in 2007, even then the film was finished in 2005 and was not shown until mid 2007 for one reason or another. However, Sono’s current 4 hour opus “Love Exposure” is not plagued with such woes, as it is currently on a rampage winning audience awards at festivals (and is one of my most anticipated films for 2009). Going into the archives and pulling out my Fantasia Festival review of Hazard (originally published on Twitch) to celebrate the films release – note the DVD is available from Evokative films.]
Drifting aimlessly through a foreign country is a time honoured tradition for college students in many cultures. In North America, the obligatory and much clichéd trip to Europe generally involves booze, museums, hostels and trains. There is a part of nearly everyone that wants an experience beyond the standard where hazard is often the goal of the trip as it is a thing of which to be wary.
Frustrated with college life and feeling simultaneously ‘sleepy and restless’, Shin rockets off campus, literally screaming, for something away from orderly bookshelves and quiet study. The dream is the crime soaked streets of New York City, prompted by a statistic that it is Americas most dangerous city (the film is set in the late 1990s). He pushes off a couple of perky Japanese tourists upon arriving at the Big Apple despite their blatant advances. Shin does not want to be a tourist. He wants the experience of the mean streets. It should be noted that Shin is played by none other than Joe Odagiri, debuting as a leading star here in this 2005 film, Hazard, but has since made a career out of wandering around cities in cinema, including Tokyo (Adrift in Tokyo) and Sao Paulo (Plastic City)
After being mugged and left hungry and lost, Shin drops into the lap of two Japanese-Americans. Lee, played to the hilt by Japanese-Canadian Jai West, is a blustery and unpredictable ball of energy who somehow manages to rob convenience stores, deal drugs, handle the local (racist) thug cop effortlessly while speaking in his own personal patois of Japanese and Gangsta. Takeda is the shy sidekick in love with a white Maître d’ up the street. Wanting to skip relationship and head straight into marriage and babies, his perfect English evaporates whenever he tries to speak to her. The boyish pair like their Carpe Diem mixed with petty larceny, speed laced ice cream and no shortage of firearms. They give Shin his dream of being apart of a full live-in-the-moment-consequences-be-damned existence all the while teaching him English using Walt Whitman verse.
Japanese director Sion Sono’s grunge fantasy of New York is built up from impressions of the city through early Scorsese pictures makes no bones of its wish-fulfillment intent. It is awash in the red and yellow neon glow of the night and the soggy, trash strewn urban ghetto of the day. It is shot in with long hand-held takes and an improvised feel of perpetual motion. The vérité style—using seat of the pants location shooting, non-actors in the supporting roles—is cleverly subverted to full blown fantasy. The consequences of throwing beer into the face of the law and getting into casual gun-fights with shop proprietors? They feed back into the loop of cool that Sono is intent on running for the audience. Lee’s trip to prison amounts to the observation that he looks good in orange. Late Taxi Driver ambitions offer little in the way of substance. But here, that is kind of the point—the films strength and originality if you will.
Think Thomas Vinterberg’s Dear Wendy without the irony and polemic or Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket without the goofy humour. Hazard is determined to be lost in the romance of the foreign crazy-sexy-cool and free of any real depth or truth. So, it sort of ends up being the tourist voyage after all. The infectious performances and the dreamy version of New York captured by Sono still make it worth the trip along with the resolute aim of the film to have fun. The sticky question proposed is whether or not a perceived experience by way of fantasy is a healthy way to make one a better person. Wispy and etherial, Hazard manages to linger despite its own best intentions.