Review for Greatful Dead
Just as it is for food, so it is for entertainment. After a couple of weeks of turkey leftovers, sprouts and Christmas pud, and I’m dying for salad. And after a holiday season of repeats, Hollywood blockbusters, end of year retrospectives, saccharine best ever lists, and the Doctor Who Christmas special, I need something lean and refreshing to cleanse the mental palate. My saviour as always is Third Window Films, who begin their 2015 campaign with a movie unlike any other, something quirky, light, fresh, dark, morbid, funny, and poignant. It’s that strange oxymoron of the utterly unexpected that I have come to expect from Third Window Films. It’s just the right way to kick off the New Year.
Nami didn’t have the ideal childhood. Her family was more dysfunctional than most, with a mother more interested in needy children in the Third World than her own. She soon left home to follow her calling, at which point her doting husband fell into a freefall depression, got a mistress, ignored his family for her, lost the mistress, and then killed himself. Meanwhile Nami’s older sister escaped the family home as soon as she got a boyfriend, leaving Nami to spend her childhood alone with the shopping channel. As soon as she reached 20, Nami inherited her father’s small fortune, enough to live off and pursue her hobby.
That hobby is the observation of Solitarians, as she puts it. Solitarians are those people who are lonely, just like her, with no one else in their lives, but who have allowed that loneliness to drive them crazy. It’s the businessman determinedly walking to work years after he was fired, or it’s the oddball feeding birds in the park, Nami believes she has found the perfect Solitarian when she spies an old man named Shiomi, barking at a couple of women outside a supermarket. She sets up a tent on a building roof close to his house to spy on him. He lives alone, estranged from his son’s family, addicted to mail order porn. He’s Nami’s favourite kind of Solitarian. And then the church gets involved, running an outreach program to combat the Lonely Death looming for the nation’s elderly, and one volunteer named Su-Yong manages to get through Shiomi’s wall, start to rehabilitate him into society. That’s not going to happen. Shiomi is Nami’s Solitarian!
Greatful Dead gets a 1.85:1 widescreen transfer at 1080p resolution. It’s a passable presentation, clear and sharp throughout with a fair level of detail and strong colour reproduction, as well as nice shadow and black levels. The issue then is with the source material, shot mostly naturalistically, and where grain levels become apparent in low light scenes. One niggle with the transfer might be the light banding that becomes apparent during scene fades. Apart from this, the film is watchable enough.
The images used in this review are kindly supplied by Third Window Films.
The sole audio track is a DTS-HD MA 2.0 Stereo Japanese track, with optional English subtitles. The dialogue is clear throughout; the stereo gives the action a bit of space, and makes the most of the film’s quirky soundtrack. I don’t think I’ve ever heard Flight of the Bumblebee in quite this context before. The subtitles are accurately timed, and free of typographical error.
The disc presents the film with an animated menu screen.
The sole extra, but a welcome one is an interview with the film’s director, Eiji Uchida. It’s presented in 1080i and lasts 22:06, and he goes into quite some depth about the making of the film. While TWF’s features have been subtitled well in the past, the same can’t be said for their extra features. Hopefully they’ve started 2015 the way they mean to go on, as the quality of the subtitles in this interview were on a par with the film in terms of lack of error, and readability.
If Japan made Amelie, and if Amelie was a total psychopath, then Greatful Dead would be that film, or at least the first half of it. It actually offers a lot more than that, as it touches on genres and plays with several ideas during its brief runtime. But while it is a dark and macabre mirror of Amelie, the direct antithesis of it in many ways, it did at times manage to evoke the same sense of wonder and delight in me, that feeling I get with a film that is wholly unexpected and a little deranged of concept.
It certainly starts in a similar way, introducing Nami as the child of a dysfunctional family, where the members manage to dysfunction in random and bizarre ways. A mother who is more interested in needy children abroad than her own, resulting in a depressed father who brings home a femme fatale as a mistress, it’s no wonder that Nami develops in an unhealthy way. That’s evidenced right from the beginning when she delivers her soliloquy on solitude, although what she does to try and get her parents’ attention is the first inkling that Amelie this is not.
However, when later her hobby is revealed, that of finding oddball and off the wall people driven that way by their own solitude, and then observing and stalking them, you do get that same whimsical air of imaginative frenzy as the director creates inner worlds for these Solitarians, that can delight in their quirkiness, although once again there’s a dark, seedy foundation to them that gives the film an off-kilter edge. Of course Nami is the quirkiest Solitarian of them all, obsessed with following these lives, feeling a girlish glee when she finds one of her subjects deceased in his home.
It’s when she encounters Shiomi that the tone and direction of the film changes. She’s found her perfect Solitarian, and from this point the film is concerned with her obsession about him alone. It’s here the film takes on a very dark tone, dispensing with the quirkiness of earlier, as Nami becomes a full on stalker, and when it becomes clear that Shiomi is being ‘rescued’ from his solitary life by a church volunteer, Nami eventually gets her hands dirty trying to keep her toy. It’s around this point in the film that comparisons with Love Exposure are most apt, but for me this is the weakest point of the film, where it verges on the conventional stalker horror genre, and her manic obsession begins to seem rather mundane.
But then Greatful Dead pulls something of a masterstroke. It lets its victim fight back. There’s a line in the film, “This is war” which is delivered with the same kind of gusto as Bugs Bunny’s “Of course you realise this means war”, and to my surprise, what follows is a sequence which is nothing less than a live action cartoon. From that particular sinking uneasiness that comes with a stalker horror to laughing out loud uproariously at a tit for tat scene that wouldn’t be out of place in Bottom. And just when I think that Greatful Dead had nothing left in its arsenal, it delivers a denouement with an unexpected moment of heartfelt poignancy.
Quirky, dark, hilarious, moving; all descriptives I never thought I could apply to a single film, but that really is Greatful Dead. It comes from a rather depressing observation that is just as true about the UK as it is about Japan. You might have blanked out that news report about solitary Britain, how more and more of us live alone, spend Christmases alone, and will most likely die alone, a direct consequence of the disintegration of family and the collapse of community. You wouldn’t think that’s the kind of observation that could inspire a delicious dark comedy, but in Greatful Dead it has done just that.