Sion Sono's latest is a typically bizarre, funny, surreal and bloody treat.
Tag (Fantasia Review)
Sion Sono is one of my favourite directors working today, and I feel like I need to get that fact out of the way before delving into Tag, which happens to be one of six (!) Sono films coming out in 2015. Much like his fellow countryman and filmmaker Takashi Miike, Sono’s output is prolific and seemingly designed to defy all categories, whether it’s a four-hour epic about cults and upskirt photography (Love Exposure), a grim drama about the Fukushima nuclear disaster (The Land of Hope), a hip-hop gangster musical (Tokyo Tribe), or a gonzo ode to celluloid filmmaking (Why Don’t You Play in Hell?). The point is that, when it comes to Sono, it’s best to expect the unexpected. Tag is yet another insane, baffling whatsit from the cult filmmaker, and it’s amazingly just as strong, original, and entertaining as some of his strongest work.
Going into the plot is a fool’s errand, since the only sensical thing in Tag happens to be its three-part structure. The film opens with a school bus full of Japanese girls going on a trip, with the camera focusing on shy student Mitsuko (Reina Triendl) writing some poetry in her notebook. She drops her pen, and right when she bends down to pick it up a gust of wind slices the bus in half lengthwise, sending the upper torsos of everyone on the bus flying onto the street. Mitsuko survives thanks to bending down at just the right moment, but the gust of wind soon comes back to finish her off. She outruns it, winding up back in her hometown as all of her friends start heading to class for yet another school day. Was Mitsuko dreaming? Was the evil wind real?
Needless to say, things soon get crazier for Mitsuko, and revealing any more of the bloody, surreal highlights in Tag would be a disservice. This is the sort of film that’s ideal for the midnight screening crowd, with so many left turns and howlingly funny spurts of violence, it’ll be difficult not to embrace Sono’s gleeful insanity. And just when things couldn’t get stranger, Sono pulls a Buñuel and recasts his lead character with two other actresses. Mitsuko soon discovers that she’s turned into Keiko (Mariko Shinoda), a bride-to-be, and by the third act, Keiko transforms into marathon runner Izumi (Erina Mano). How these three women link together doesn’t really matter, although Sono does provide an answer by the end. Whether or not it’s a satisfactory answer is beside the point, since this is a film more about the bloody, fast-paced journey than the destination.
The only big problem with Tag that holds it back from being top-tier Sono is its lack of material. Sono wrote the screenplay himself (based off a novel by Yusuke Yamada, although Sono supposedly never read the source material until filming started), and despite running at a pretty lean 85 minutes, there’s a lot of padding. This is especially apparent in the first act, when most of Mitsuko’s scenes wind up being overlong, repetitive montages and/or chase scenes (but, to be fair, Tag pretty much is one long chase sequence). It’s a little concerning to see the film spinning its wheels so much, but Sono’s constant use of drones keep things crackling visually, and there’s always the promise of something new and crazy right around the corner. People can think whatever they want about Sono’s work, but no one can say he’s ever short on ingenuity.
But Tag isn’t just about its irrationally entertaining surface. It might be hard to track during the finale’s shift from action to horror to dystopian sci-fi, but there’s a clear message about claiming one’s own identity and freedom buried under all of the film’s eccentricities. That’s kind of expected from Sono, though, and expecting some sort of emotional resonance from a film that opens with dozens of high schoolers getting sliced in two might be asking for a little too much. Either way, I was thoroughly entertained by Tag and its hyperactive, hyper-violent story. The fact that Sono can still make something this baffling and enjoyable so many films into his career is kind of an achievement in itself.
Tag had its North American premiere on August 3rd at Montreal’s Fantasia International Film Festival. To find out more about the festival, visit http://www.fantasiafestival.com