An enthusiastic embrace of exploitation cinema, Sion Sono’s Why Don’t You Play in Hell? is commentary on and celebration of trash cinema. It’s a gory action movie, slapstick comedy, teen melodrama, revenge actioner, and backstage satire. A wild and trashy mashup, it involves an amateur film club, Yakuza warfare, astonishingly bloody homicides, and a toothpaste commercial with one of the catchiest jingles you’ll ever hear. The plot is simple, clever, and told in a dizzyingly complicated manner, with wacky characterizations, jarring tonal shifts, a rambling prologue, and layers of amplifications. Sono, a Japanese poet-turned-filmmaker, makes films that are usually this extreme, and inherently messy. When they go wrong, there’s nothing worse. But in those instances where everything goes right, they’re big, sloppy, passionate exhilaration, the kind of joyously vulgar trash the movies do best.
To tell it simply: a mob boss (Jun Kunimura) wants to make an action movie that’ll make his daughter (Fumi Nikaido) a star. He forces his henchmen to become an impromptu crew. He strong-arms a local group of unsuccessful slacker indie filmmakers (a rubbery Hiroki Hasegawa as the ringleader) to direct the production. He even decides to write in a big brawl and use his actual gangland enemies (led by a sweaty Shinichi Tsutsumi) as the extras. Why not have a real battle and call it cinema? The filmmakers are in over their heads, but too in love with the expensive equipment and creative resources (swooning over real 35mm film!) to care about the dangers. It’s all fun moviemaking games, even when things get real nasty as a bloodbath battle erupts. They don’t mind. At long last, they’re making a movie!
The scenario is as funny as it is bloody. There’s a lot of comical meta film industry winking – the mobster producers are clear stand-ins for studio meddling, for example – and the characters are endlessly eccentric. There’s an infectious put-on-a-show energy not entirely unlike Mickey Rooney musicals, with the young filmmakers eager to help gangsters make sense of the moviemaking process. Eventually, there’s an endless, and endlessly inventive, action sequence in which the variety of plotlines resolve with bleeding determination and non-stop jokey excitement. It’s like Sono saw Kill Bill Vol. 1’s finale and decided to outdo it. The film and the film-within-the-film are pileups of ripe melodrama, lurid gore, goofy brutality, and projectile vomit. At one point the amateur director stands in awe of their project. “This is the movie miracle of a lifetime!” he shouts.
So it is. And so, in its way, is Why Don’t You Play in Hell?, the rare prefab cult item that deserves to find its cult, because it is so gonzo expressive, ripped out of its creator’s passionate heart. There’s nothing quite like a Sono film firing on all cylinders, a rattling chaos of inspiration and insanity. Here he deploys visual gags, whip pans, snap zooms, and smash cuts to supply invigorating energy to his loopily cartoonish plot that picks up buckets of blood and cutesy affections around every corner. It’s the kind of movie where a decapitated body’s hand makes a peace sign with its dying spasms, a vindictive girl fills her mouth with broken glass and makes an ex kiss her, and warring Yakuza love the idea of being in a movie so much they pause their fighting out of respect for the director’s “Cut!” This is midnight-movie madness, convoluted, excessive, and energetically, infectiously fun. It’s a love letter to cinema at its most psychotically, unpredictably entertaining.