If you ask an average movie watcher to list their top five favorite movies, chances are you will see a list of familiar titles that more often than not line up with at least one of the films on IMDB’s Top 250 list. If you ask a serious film aficionado you’ll probably get some more of the safe, well known films. Oh, by the way if someone says Citizen Kane is their favorite movie they are trying to impress you. I am probably talking out of my ass in assuming what other people would put in their personal top five list. Generally speaking you will not meet many average people who will put a foreign film on their list of favorite movies.
Linda Linda Linda is one of my favorite movies. As in a top fiver. Maybe one day I’ll tell you the list.
Now some might think that starting this review list blog thing with one of my favorite movies is a dumb idea. But I did say that I would write about every movie I see this year and Linda Linda Linda takes the honor of being the first. Of course I didn’t pick it specifically so I could gush about this movie. Don’t be silly. Well, alright, that’s part of it. But I also think it is harder to write about the things you love, at least from a critical standpoint. Writing on why something is bad is easy. So yes, I did pick Linda Linda Linda to start the list off on a high, but I also did it to see if I could talk about the movie and why I love it and even some things I don’t like about it. If you’re expecting me to end this with a number so you can scroll down and see what I give it, just leave now. I hate applying numbers to things. The number doesn’t matter. The words do. So read on and see why Linda Linda Linda is a wonderful movie.
THE PLOT Linda Linda Linda is a plotless movie. Not literally of course. It is plotless in the same way Napoleon Dynamite is plotless. But unlike Napoleon Dynamite, the plotlessness of Linda Linda Linda works in its favor. The movie is about three Japanese high school girls who are in their school’s pop music club three days before the cultural festival. For those of you who didn’t grow up with anime, a cultural festival is where every class and club at a high school puts on sort of a mini carnival for a few days and people from the town come and have some fun and pay some yen to eat food made by the students and maybe see a play or something. My knowledge of Japanese culture comes strictly from anime, movies, and Asian dramas so I am probably off base. But all you need to know is that a cultural festival is literally that: a festival.
The girls, Kei (Yuu Kashii), Kyoko (Aki Maeda, Battle Royale), and Nozomi (Shiori Sekine, actual musician) find themselves in a bit of a pickle. Their guitarist has broken her finger due to a basketball injury and Kei’s enemy and fellow club member wants nothing to do with the performance. With just under three days before they are scheduled to perform the three decide to have the first girl that crosses their path perform vocals so they can play the gig. Enter Son (Bae Doona, Take Care of My Cat), a Korean exchange student who barely speaks Japanese. I’m going to stop for a minute. See that name up there? Bae Doona? Were it not totally creepy I could easily talk about her for extended lengths of time. I celebrate her entire filmography…the ones that I’ve seen, anyway. I’ve sought out movies just because she is in them. I honestly considered learning Korean just because I wanted to watch some of the Korean dramas she stars in without subtitles. The way some people adore actresses like Meryl Streep I adore Bae Doona. If you are going to be reading this blog you’d do well to remember that name; it is bound to come up again. Multiple times. Anyway, back to the movie. The four girls, with merely three days before they perform, have to learn three songs from the Japanese punk band ‘The Blue Hearts’. Kei, normally a keyboardist, has to learn guitar while Son has to learn to both sing in a different language and communicate with the others. Now you are probably thinking that that sounds like a plot. You’re right. It does. But the movie isn’t about that. I mean, sure the end goal is for them to perform at the festival but that’s not what this movie is about. This movie is about Son.
Indeed one of the reasons I adore this film so much is the character of Son and Bae Doona’s portrayal. Doona, a Korean actress, steals the show away from the ‘main’ character Kei. It isn’t just her. The director, Nobuhiro Yamashita, gets credit for letting scenes develop a character just as much and as well as dialog. What I mean by this can be seen in the opening scene of the film. It opens with a tracking shot as Kyoko walks around the school, stopping to talk to some of her friends. All around her you hear and see the sounds of laughter and happiness as classmates and friends work on turning their classrooms into festival stations. And as Kyoko continues on her walk, she passes by a seemingly empty room – and the camera moves into the room. And it isn’t empty. Inside the room is Son. Son is staring at the exhibit for her classroom. Her classroom, a special classroom specifically for her, is advertised as a “Japan-Korea Culture Exchange”. Contrary to every other classroom, Son is by herself while her teacher rambles on about fliers. The other classrooms are putting up decorations and balloons and sounding excited. Son is staring at the main attraction for the class. A picture of a cow with cuts of beef on it and “Beef Darts” written on top.
Son is very much a stranger in a strange land. She barely speaks the language, her teacher doesn’t care, and she has no friends. The display of loneliness don’t stop there. Son is always shown walking alone while those around her are walking in groups and having fun, and the only person outside of her teacher that talks to her is the daughter of her host family; and she only does it to subtly mock her for not understanding the language. Son is not a particularly happy person and the movie does a fantastic job of showing this to you. It does this by effectively using mise en scene. The characters in the movie don’t talk often so to compensate Yamashita puts an emphasis on visual storytelling. Now, pretty much every director worth a damn is going to want to care about the layout of a scene, but Yamashit uses the scene and the set to tell his story just as much if not more so than the script. And Bae Doona is no slouch either. Her eyes say just as much as her mouth and you can feel the sadness that lies beneath her every smile. What makes Son work as a character is in how she interacts with the other three. Son is initially forced into joining the band so that Kei can get out of an awkward situation. Son, not understanding, merely accepts. And even as she says no after understanding what they meant, Kei doesn’t seem to care that Son is uncomfortable. This simple understanding is the start of Son’s (and Kei’s, but we don’t care about her) transformation.
All good characters in any medium should undergo an arc or otherwise change in some way by the end. Son not only changes, she changes the other three even while they continue to laugh at her. I’m trying to avoid spoilers even though this movie came out in 2005 but suffice it to say, Son goes from a sad-but-smiling character into someone who genuinely finds acceptance and friendship. One of my favorite moments in the film happens near the end. Son’s only visitor to the Beef Darts exhibit is the daughter of her host family. Son is tired and doing her best to put on a smile for the kid. And then Kei enters. Son brightens up. And the daughter, in total shock, says “Hey, you have a friend!” That line, hell that SCENE, floors me every time because it perfectly represents the arc that both Son and Kei go through. Son finally has a friend and Kei no longer finds herself taking things so seriously all the time. They helped each other without even knowing.
Unfortunately this isn’t about Son. It’s about Linda Linda Linda. Yes, Son is a major reason why I adore this film but another reason is that it’s just an enjoyable movie all around. It is the perfect rainy day movie and I don’t mean that as an insult. Pretty much every aspect of the movie is geared towards a relaxing movie watching experience, from the incredibly simple plot to the score composed by former Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha is there to give the viewer a warm feeling. It’s the movie version of grandma’s home made chicken noodle soup. And if your grandma never made you chicken noodle soup I am sorry for the terrible life you are leading.
I often criticize Japanese films for being poorly shot and having some of the worst special effects this side of an Asylum film, but Linda Linda Linda feels like it was helmed by Robert Zemeckis..err…pre-Flight. From the opening tracking shot to the masterful mise en scene to the direction of each individual scene, Linda Linda Linda just…works. It is hard, dare I say impossible, to not end the movie either with smile or feeling good. Unless, of course, you have something against aimless movies and understated performances.
Of course there has to be bad because nothing is perfect. I do love this movie nd it is because of that love that I can see the negatives. Most of them are minor, but they are still there.
The biggest problem is that two of the four girls are just kind of …there. The movie is really about Son and Kei and it shows. The other two never get any sort of time to shine or grow even though the movie is two hours long. The only thing the audience knows about Nozomi is that she is quiet and has a large family. It is heavily implied that they are not doing too well financially since she has to budget out groceries while the other three girls try to get her to buy expensive desserts, but nothing is really done with the character. She is just “the bassist” and sometimes she pipes in to agree or disagree with another character. Kyoko, the fourth girl, is given subplot that goes nowhere. I mean that literally. She is supposed to be the ‘normal’ one that holds the band together but that’s poorly executed. Her subplot involves her crush on a classmate. It’s in there but it really has no reason to be. It isn’t resolved and all it does is create one tiny bit of needless drama in the final act. I really would’ve liked to have these characters have the same impact as Son and Kei, but nothing of the sort happens.
I mentioned that it was a two hour movie and I am all for movies over 90 minutes, but there are times when the deliberate pace works against it. Specifically the scenes with Kei and Tamoko, an older girl who spends her festival time sitting on the roof drinking beer and reading manga.
But the biggest offender is the single worst scene in the movie.
THE WORST SCENE
Near the end, as in ten minutes or so before the credits, there is a really heartwarming moment between Kei and Son that takes place in a bathroom. It is one of my favorite moments in the movie. Immediately following that is a dream sequence in which Kei is given a prosthetic hand, a cake, and is put on stage in front of four people dressed like The Ramones while the other three girls clap and are slowly slid offscreen.
It is completely out of place and adds nothing to the movie. In a movie where very little actually happens it takes effort to add a scene which literally adds NOTHING to the table. All it does is extend the run time. It isn’t even necessary to tell the audience that the girls are asleep because that is already accomplished prior to that when characters are trying to contact them. It doesn’t even work as character development for Kei because at that point in the movie she had finished her arc. In fact in the scene before the dream she finally reaches the end of her development. Are we supposed to interpret this as meaning that one day Kei wants to play on stage at the Budokan in front of The Ramones?
Does she know that Johnny, Joey, and Dee Dee are dead?
There is also some stuff between Kei and her burnout ex boyfriend that goes on for a bit too long. But it’s not the worst. The dream is the worst.
THE BEST SCENE
The best scene involves Son. Because of course it does. Late into the movie, the girls are worn out from practicing late into the night. Son takes this as her chance to go for a little walk. The girls had been practicing in the school club room and so Son, who had never experienced a culture festival, decides to go on little tour. No one is there, of course, because this is after hours. Son goes skipping by the exhibits and emulating the sounds she overheard in the past days. Son is delighted just to be able to see all of the stands after days of nonstop rehearsal. She winds up in the auditorium and steps onto the stage.
What follows is incredibly uplifting as Son pretends to introduce the band, detailing the quirks and traits of her only friends. And as she comes to herself she pauses and gets a depressed look on her face. It lasts but a second, but she never describes herself like she does the others. She hesitates and just says her name. And when she returns to the club room she sees the other three girls waiting for her and smiles the first genuine smile of the film.
It sounds odd in text, but it plays wonderfully on film and defines the character of Son. All she cares about is having friends and seeing them happy. The other three need Son for the gig. But no one realizes just how much the four of them truly need each other.
The second best scene involves Son and a secret admirer but you’ll have to see the movie to get that.
I hope I did an alright job in justifying why I think Linda Linda Linda is a fantastic movie. I probably didn’t. But it is.
I’m terrible at ending things so I’ll just do a quick summation of my thoughts.
Linda Linda Linda is a fantastic movie that I adore for its visual storytelling and understated performance by the incomparable Bae Doona. I’m not going to say that everyone should watch it, and if you hate deliberately slow paced movies where nothing happens until the end you will probably be bored to death right around the time the girls are drinking juice under the stars. At times you feel the length of the movie, but you won’t regret sticking it out to the end. Even if you hate foreign movies for some reason, consider watching Linda Linda Linda. You won’t regret it. And if you do, tell me. So I can tell you that you are wrong.
If you like Linda Linda Linda I suggest you watch Swing Girls. Swing Girls is very similar to Linda Linda Linda and came out a year before. It contains a larger cast of characters and has pretty much the same plot. Though instead of a punk concert the girls in Swing Girls want to play a swing jazz show. The characters aren’t developed well and it’s far more comedic, but the two are practically the same movie. Hell, they even have the same ending. Like, the exact same scenario and resolution. I feel Linda Linda Linda is a better film, but Swing Girls is pretty good too.
Once you get past the reading, anyway.