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Swallowtail
  |     review    |     notes     |     availability     |



Notes:
• In an example of brilliant cross-promotion, the Yentown Band, featured in the film led by Glico, released a spin-off 6-track album following the release of the film. Even though the title single "Swallowtail Butterfly" was a huge hit in Japan, the Yentown Band never released another album again.


Availability:
DVD (Japan)
Region 2 NTSC
Pony Canyon
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Japanese Language Track
Dolby Digital 5.1 / DTS 5.1
Removable English and Japanese Subtitles
Various Featurettes and Extras

DVD (Japan)
Region 2 NTSC
Pony Canyon
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Japanese Language Track
Dolby Digital 5.1 / DTS 5.1
Removable English and Japanese Subtitles
Various Featurettes and Extras


 
AKA: Swallowtail Butterfly
Year: 1996
Director: Shunji Iwai
Writer: Shunji Iwai
Cast: Chara, Ayumi Ito, Hiroshi Mikami, Yosuke Eguchi, Andy Hui Chi-On, Mickey Curtis, Sheik Mahmud-Bey
The Skinny: A shining example of ambitious filmmaking, Shunji Iwai's dark and genre-defying epic is a masterpiece in every sense of the word. Why this film hasn't shown up in the West is baffling.
  Review
by
Kevin Ma:

     Shunji Iwai's Swallowtail opens with a "once upon a time" narration that seems to have come straight out of a fairy tale. The narrator explains that the yen has become the most powerful currency in the world (not a very far-fetched scenario). So powerful, in fact, that people from all over the world have gone to Japan to work for the yen, hoping to earn a fortune and return home rich. The influx of immigrants became so large that Japan would come to be called "Yentown." However, the Japanese hated that title so much that the foreigners who fill up "Yentown" would be named "Yentown" as well. This introduction sets up a grand futuristic "Yentown" epic by Shunji Iwai, whose only previous feature film at the time was the equally magical Love Letter. Taking a considerably different approach, Swallowtail is a dark, gritty, violent fantasy that is nothing short of amazing filmmaking.
     The film opens with the discovery of a dead Chinese prostitute, and we soon realize that the narrator is the prostitute's nameless daughter. With all her mother's money stolen by her Chinese colleagues, the girl is passed from one caretaker to another within the Yentown ghetto until she encounters Glico (played by pop star Chara, also the wife of Tadanobu Asano), another Chinese prostitute with a heart of gold and a hell of a singing voice. Too nice to sell the girl off to a similar sordid lifestyle, Glico not only gives her a name (Ageha), she also sends her to work at a second-hand shop, run by Fei Hung (Hiroshi Mikami) and a merry band of fellow Yentowns.
     Ageha soon learns the reality of being a Yentown with Fei Hung, as the two spend their days digging through junkyards and popping the tires of passing cars. However, everything changes when Glico encounters a particularly rough client, and a fellow Yentown named Arrow accidentally punches him out the window, followed by a fairly unpleasant crush by a passing truck. Upon burying the dead client, Fei Hung's crew finds a cassette tape containing Frank Sinatra's "My Way" inside his stomach. Little do they know that not only would the tape become their key out of Yentown, it would also put them into a deadly confrontation with Yentown's deadliest gangster, Rio Ranki (Yosuke Eguchi).
     Swallowtail's brilliance lies in the fact that it defies description; it is a coming-of-age story for Ageha, a rise-and-fall musical epic for Glico and Fei Hung, a gangster thriller for Rio Ranki, a social realist film on the consumerist culture of Japan, and a futuristic fantasy all rolled into one. Even the languages of the film are blurred, with no less than three languages (Japanese, English, and Mandarin Chinese) being used at the same time. While this may disorient some in the beginning (just as Iwai had intended), it never becomes grating nor simply a gimmick. The confusion of languages is necessary in order to portray the type of melting pot Yentown is. From Caucasian characters that speak no English ("Thanks to the Japanese education system, I cannot speak a word of English!" he says in fluent Japanese.) to characters that speak three languages in one sentence, Iwai not only aims to satirize contemporary Japanese culture's disdain of foreigners (although not necessarily foreign culture), but also present a reality of the oft-ignored ethnic minorities. It's an ambitious motif, but in the multi-layered world of Swallowtail, it's only one small detail.
     Iwai films tend to focus on characters, and despite its dense plot, Swallowtail is no exception. Adapting his own novel, Iwai has concocted a colorful cast of characters, supported by brilliant performances all around, even when they spend most of the film speaking their non-native languages. Chara is magical as she transforms from a kindhearted prostitute who just likes to sing into a pop diva with a hidden past; Hiroshi Mikami is incredible as the bumbling opportunist Fei Hung who remains defiant through his tragic end; and Ayumi Ito as Ageha is the soul of the film, as her growth process from a confused orphan to a powerful boss of the Yentown juvenile delinquents proves to be the best arc of Swallowtail. Even supporting characters get their moments in the spotlights. Sheik Mahmud-Bey has a memorable scene as Arrow the ex-boxer/protector, veteran actor Mickey Curtis steals the spotlight in an extended sequence as a doctor/tattoo artist, and Hong Kong pop star Andy Hui gets to show off his wild side as triad "cold-face killer" Mao Foo. It's rare that such as wide ensemble of actors can manage to all give great performances, and Swallowtail happens to be that instance.
     Despite its fantasy plotting, Iwai, with his usual cinematographer Noboru Shinoda, shoots the film in cinema verité style, often using multiple handheld cameras for one scene. This creates a down-to-earth futuristic world where it's not changes in technology, but societal changes that are emphasized. However, Shinoda also sticks to the plot's fable roots by importing Iwai's signature look, using soft lighting as a contrast to Yentown's rough surroundings. The result is a beautiful rendered piece of visual filmmaking that makes every frame of Swallowtail stunning to look at.
     If there is any weakness to Swallowtail, it would be Iwai's penchant for details. At 148 minutes, Swallowtail goes through a rough start, and the film does drag slightly as it approaches the climax, an extended tour through the drug-filled slums being one such sequence where the pace lags. But for the most part, Iwai, as his own editor, injects each scene with just enough of everything that it finds its pacing early on and sticks to it until the very end. Injecting a heavy dose of the usual Iwai quirky humor, including a healthy serving of dark humor during the climax in the form of several violent shootouts, Iwai still manages to comfortably juggle multiple subplots and even ties them all back together in the end. If you're looking for a definition for "brilliant filmmaking," this is it.
     After my first viewing of Swallowtail on an old Hong Kong VCD, I sat in silence through the end credits, stunned by what I had seen. There are very few films where one viewing would be enough for it to become one of my favorites. In the case of Swallowtail, it only took 148 minutes for me to become a full-fledged Iwai fan. If a lesser director had directed Swallowtail, it would've been an intriguing mess, but luckily Shunji Iwai not only managed to devise a wild ride through the gritty wasteland that is Yentown, but he also managed to construct an emotionally affecting and visually astonishing piece of cinema that would elevate his status as the premier filmmaker of his generation. Even though Swallowtail was met with critical and commercial success at the time of its release in 1996, and has since become required viewing for film classes in Asia, it's baffling that it hasn't gotten much of a reputation in the West. Its multi-ethnic settings can easily translate into a Hollywood film. Then again, if Swallowtail were remade by Hollywood, it just wouldn't be as good. (Kevin Ma 2006)

 
   
 
 
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