Sion Sono’s (Why Don’t You Play In Hell?, Cold Fish) latest film, Tag – one of three to hit the festival circuit so far this year, with three more to come – begins with a scene that makes the opening of his own Suicide Club look like an episode of Thomas the Tank Engine. It remains an incredibly bloody and graphically violent experience through to the end, and at a brisk 85 minutes the film is a ridiculously exciting (and just flat out ridiculous at times) piece of run and gun entertainment. It can easily be enjoyed – or dismissed – as just pure surface-level thrills, but Sono pairs the blood and panties parade with a devastatingly cynical commentary that adds a whole other level of appreciation.
Mitsuko (Reina Triendl) is on a bus trip with classmates, and as the others share in a pillow fight she writes poems in her journal and ignores the gentle jabs from her friends. Without warning, a mysterious wind strikes the buses, killing everyone but Mitsuko. She escapes, and in shock ends up back at school with a mild case of amnesia – she recalls the earlier events as a dream but has no memory of school. Her self-professed best friend Aki takes her under her wing, and after ditching class with some others the foursome spend time discussing fate, free will and the power of spontaneity – you know, typical high school girl blather. “But maybe our destiny is decided,” says one. “We’re trapped in it.”
They head back to school on that ominous note only to discover another massacre in the making. Once again Mitsuko runs, but it seems the absurdly excessive violence is never far behind.
To detail more would be to rob viewers of the film’s many bat-shit insane story turns and visual displays of crimson splendor. The film to this point has already dipped entire body parts into the surreal, but it moves effortlessly towards greater, stranger highs as it explores ideas of fate, self-determination, identity, victimization and what it means to be a woman in not just today’s world, but yesterday’s and tomorrow’s too.
The commentary is biting and quite visceral, but Sono is so determined that viewers pick up on it that he lays it on unnecessarily thick with repetition and dialogue that spells things out as text instead of subtext. It feels redundant at times, but an argument can be made that Sono has reason to want to ensure audiences pick up on it – because part of what he’s criticizing is a system, a behavior and a reality that he himself is very much a part of.
The objectification of women as play things and their relegation to little more than spank-bank inventory are issues that have plagued media – film, TV, video games – since men first picked up a camera or began coding, and Sono’s own career is filled with examples. There are more upskirt panty shots in Tag than in any other film since 2008’s Love Exposure. (Psst, Sono directed Love Exposure.) None of this is to say that shots of school girls in short skirts is a “bad thing” necessarily, but while Sono and others frequently use such scenes solely for titillation here he uses them for, well, for titillation with a point.
The film is just the latest adaptation of Yusuke Yamada’s popular novel about random people who share only the same last name being tagged and targeted for killing. Sono takes that premise and ditches its more obvious allegorical meanings in favor of highlighting an entire gender as the unwilling target. There’s a reason the first male doesn’t appear until fifty minutes in, and even then he’s a groom with a literal pig head in place of his own. Others follow including mindless, salivating drones fondling themselves as they stare at pictures of Mitsuko and men whose expectations of female subservience are ingrained in their very DNA. The cruel and catty competition between women isn’t given a pass, but even those moments are ultimately about wanting to appease and appeal to men.
It’s a man’s world, and women are just working in it – and “working it” in it. Their actions are for men’s benefit, and their achievements are rarely allowed to be their own. Mitsuko is almost constantly on the run here from death, yes, but also from male desires and societal expectations. Her brief moments of relaxation allow for time with girl friends highlighting casual conversation, words of support and acts of camaraderie, but the calm is continually short-lived between outbursts of extreme violence and the need to keep on moving. Sono walks an extremely thin line here by criticizing something even as he revels in it – and one doesn’t get the impression that his future films will be any different – but he succeeds in spite of himself. Our own reaction is proof of that as the film remains madly, joyously entertaining even as its message hits home.
By the time Tag ends and lays out what exactly is happening the conclusion Sono reaches is almost guaranteed to depress, disappoint and possibly anger some viewers. It favors a cynical view of the present over an optimistic one of the future, but the key is that like the entirety of the film the end is not meant to be taken literally. Instead it finds the only plausible response to the world we’ve made, and it’s best summed up in the immortal words of a game-playing computer named Joshua – “A strange game. The only winning move is not to play.”
Related Topics: Fantasia Film Festival