Juvenile delinquency has served as a frequent plot point in East Asian cinema. In fact, one of the greatest films ever made, A Brighter Summer Day (1991) from Taiwan focuses majorly on rival teen gangs and the steep degradation associated with such lifestyles. Edward Yang’s film captures the why of the criminal behavior of the young boys in an extremely precise fashion with a socio-political and psychological perspective. On the other hand, All About Lily Chou-Chou (2001) is a dreamy haze, which is surprising given that the film is rife with bullying and other atrocities, all committed by school students in junior high.
Director Shunji Iwai’s approach is elliptical, his visual composition exquisite and adorned with the abstract, soothing music of Lily Chou-Chou (a fictional character inspired by Faye Wong). If A Brighter Summer Day is stone, All About Lily Chou-Chou is air or water and sometimes, both. The latter is a thoroughly sensory film. It is commonly associated with the image of Yūichi standing alone in a paddy field, carrying a portable CD player and listening to Lily Chou-Chou. The field is a cool shade of green and due to the tilted camera, takes up more than half of the screen. It looks as if Yūichi is drowning in a sea of calm, surrounded by the mellow music of nature, alone and at peace – a fascinating portrayal of escapism.
There are quite a few shots of him in or near the fields of green while Shiori (an excellent Yu Aoi) is filmed on rooftops and near the telephone tower with the sky covering almost the entire frame. Once again, the shot composition is immaculate: Shiori looks like she is at the end of the world looking up at a universe that doesn’t care. Images like that effortlessly bleed through the screen into the viewers’ minds.
As the film approaches the 40-minute mark, Hoshino‘s duality comes to the forefront. He starts off as an unassuming rich kid trying to blend in with his peers at school while seemingly having it all. So the Okinawa chapter, as I call it, is instrumental in understanding probable causes or indications of Hoshino‘s descent into psychopathy.
The ill-fated trip to Okinawa (whose funding was secured by Hoshino in a daring act of impromptu robbery) is filmed with handheld camcorders as a testament to the compulsion of inexperienced teenagers, two of whose lives will be destroyed in the long run. The island of Okinawa is hardly a fun getaway for Hoshino, who finds himself at the center of two near-fatal experiences.
Adding a random death of an eccentric traveller in the mix, Shunji Iwai transforms this segment into a vacation of death. Following these incidents and the social and economic breakdown of his family (timeline not known), Hoshino spirals out of control, plunging headlong into the darkest depths of humanity. He finds new freedom in extreme cruelty, his prey: his classmates and former friend Yūichi.
Claude Debussy’s Arabesque No. 1 is an ‘arabesque’ (of Arabic style) influenced by European interpretation of the visual intricacies of Arabic culture. In the film, the fluid ebbs and flows of the composition are often brought to life by Yōko Kuno, an adept pianist and Hoshino‘s last victim.
A rather mysterious figure, Miss Kuno is never seen in nature; she is always surrounded by walls in closed spaces, like a classroom or railway station. She is a laconic individual who switches to survival mode after her ordeal at the hands of Hoshino‘s lackeys to avoid Shiori‘s fate. Miss Kuno seems unable to halt the flow of Arabesque out of her and keeps playing long after her classes are over, far into the end credits.
The film ends with chat transcripts (from a confluence of aliased teenagers on a Lily Chou-Chou fan forum) interspersed with images of Yūichi Hasumi, Shūsuke Hoshino and Shiori Tsuda standing in a seemingly boundless field, listening to Lily Chou-Chou.
A heavily stylized film, All About Lily Chou-Chou is hardly conventional. Shunji Iwai forgoes a traditional plot to evoke lyrical despair around children handpicked for tragedy. But the hell of existence need not seep into all aspects of their lives, especially online. Being the admin of a Lily Chou-Chou BBS can help a crying soul survive. But, in a ‘Serial Experiments Lain’ fashion, some can have a spectacularly different, even warm internet persona, best not revealed in person.
As passionate fandom talk is intercut with a loose, non-linear timeline, a complete picture of the dynamic between Blue Cat (Hoshino) and Philia (Yūichi by allusion) emerges. Their relationship in the BBS feels like a parallel universe, completely opposite of what remained of their ‘friendship’ in real life, and therefore, infinitely more comforting.
What exalts All About Lily Chou-Chou to the level of a breathtaking masterpiece is Lily Cho-Chou herself. Thanks to Salyu the vocalist and Takeshi Kobayashi the writer, the film’s use of ethereal music even in clear cases of soundtrack dissonance transforms it into a breathtakingly beautiful theatre of cruelty.
Long live Shunji Iwai. Long live Lily Chou-Chou.
An avid cinephile, Tiasha is an engineer by profession and is currently pursuing her MBA. When she's not watching films, Tiasha spends her time reading Albert Camus and Franz Kafka.