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All About Lily Chou-Chou

All About Lily Chou-Chou(2001)

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Shot entirely on high-definition digital video, this remarkable and viewer-challenging experiment from director Shunji Iwai (best known for the stunning Swallowtail & Butterfly) revolves around the presence of a titular pop singer, a fictitious creation whose music drives the often fragmented events of the story. The central character, 14-year-old Yuichi (Ju-on 2's Hayato Ichihara), frequents an online board devoted to Lily where he and other devotees can savor the peaceful "Ether" created by her music. Unfortunately Yuichi's spiritual life is upset by the influence of his schoolmates who engage in bullying, vandalism, prostitution and dishonesty on a regular basis. He also has a crush on pretty Kuno (Ayumi Ito), an often victimized pianist with a fondness for Debussey. As time passes, the youngsters encounter increasing difficulty reconciling their longing for inner peace with the constant brutality of the outside world.

A meditative and beautifully shot experience, All About Lily Chou-Chou (originally titled Riri Shushu no subete) doesn't flinch from depicting the violence inflicted on its characters, though unprepared viewers may feel even more brutalized by the unorthodox structure which leaps around in time, often shuffling scenes deliberately out of order for dramatic effect. Much of the film is glued together by the haunting soundtrack, which deftly juggles classical selections with the haunting original pop compositions (including one particularly effective passage later repurposed to equally potent effect in Quentin Tartantino's Kill Bill Vol. 1).

The odd structure can mostly be attributed to its source, an Internet "novel" by Iwai whose serial structure was impacted by the feedback from various readers. Most films stumble in their treatment of the Internet by treating it as a flashy new gadget, but this is the rare exception; by using computerized communication as a means of emotional escape rather than a vehicle for visual or narrative pizzazz, the story finds a way to make itself relevant long after the specific technology has become outmoded. Not surprisingly, many Western viewers have found the combination of ethereal dreaminess and hard-edged kitchen sink reality unpalatable (Roger Ebert termed it "maddening" because it "conveys a simple message in a visual style that is willfully overwrought"), but thanks to the continually increasing fascination with Japanese cinema in the worldwide DVD market, its strengths will be appreciated by anyone who found value in films like After Life or 2046.

Barely released in American theaters, All About Lily Chou-Chou fares better with Home Vision's solid DVD release. The anamorphic transfer looks sharp and colorful enough - certainly better than the earlier UK and Hong Kong discs, though the much pricier Japanese Region 2 release reportedly edges it out a bit. The stereo audio admirably captures the delicate soundtrack with perfect clarity. (An isolated music track would've been a nice touch, but the soundtrack is out there for those with some loose change.)

The biggest extra is a 55-minute documentary, which covers the evolution of the story from a technological experiment to a narrative feature film. The production is covered with a heavy dose of behind the scenes footage and interviews, though the presentation is almost as nonlinear and challenging as the feature itself! Also included are a bio and filmography for the director, a music video for the song "Wings That Can't Fly," and two trailers, as well as an insert booklet with the director's introductory notes on the film.

For more information about All About Lily Chou-Chou, visit Home Vision Entertainment. To order All About Lily Chou-Chou, go to TCM Shopping.

by Nathaniel Thompson