In order to settle a business dispute, a mob leader murders one of his own teenage sons. The surviving son vows to avenge his brother's death, and organizes his own gang of teenage killers to destroy his father's organization.
The final instalment of Miike's Black Society Trilogy; one of his best
The final part of Takashi Miike's loosely structured "Black Society Trilogy" is an incredibly effective film; one that occasionally suffers from the more adolescent moments of shock and spectacle presented in films such as Dead or Alive (1999) and Ichi the Killer (2001), but one that also manages to ultimately overcome such limitations through the combined quality of the script and the performances. Like the other two films in the trilogy, Shinjuku Triad Society (1995) and Rainy Dog (1997), Ley Lines (1999) focuses on ideas of cultural and spatial disconnection, exile, family and the need to escape. It also exists within the same murky environment, populated by gangsters, pimps, prostitutes and lowlifes, all struggling to survive by whatever means necessary. Though at times incredibly brutal - and featuring one scene that really pushes the levels of taste and decency beyond that of the aforementioned Dead or Alive - there is, nonetheless, a strong sense of humour to the film, and a genuine sense of warmth that is expressed through the four central characters and their position as outcasts within a harsh and ultimately destructive world. It also establishes one of Miike's other recurring themes, that of the importance of family; with characters disconnected from their original families and displaced from society, coming together and forming their own makeshift family-unit with a shared goal of escaping Japan for the potential dream of happiness waiting elsewhere.
It is this central strand of the narrative that defines the film - establishing the background of the characters and the circumstances offered to them in this particular violent underworld - as Miike juxtaposes the more abrasive scenes of gun-play and sexual violence alongside more reflective moments of character and drama. If you're familiar with some of Miike's other films, in particular Birds (2000) and the aforementioned Rainy Dog, then you will be accustomed to this particular stylistic contrast; as the director veers wildly from a shoot-out scene in an alleyway, to a scene of the kids riding their scooters around Tokyo. Moments like this are given an even greater feeling of intimacy and warmth through the use of hand-held cinematography, colour filters and a largely accordion led soundtrack, which establishes quieter moments of transcendence and beauty to punctuate the more shocking instances of violence and brutality. These moments show Miike's true worth as a filmmaker, bringing to mind the sublime beauty of a film like The Bird People of China (1998) with the emphasis placed continually on moments of character; as well as adding a greater depth to the more violent scenes, which simply reinforce the bond between these central characters and their urgent need to escape.
The power of the characters on both sides of the struggle here, win out; making the elements of human drama ultimately more rewarding, and the moments of violence simply adding to this; reinforcing our connection to the characters and the oppression that threatens to destroy them. By the end of the film we're rooting for their escape and their victory over these warring gangs' intent on maintaining the status quo. However, as the film approaches its climax, Miike begins breaking down the elements of reality even further; obscuring the image with dark red colour filters and fragmented compositions, as well as suggesting certain elements of dream logic. As a result, the ending of the film is somewhat enigmatic. Nonetheless, it does tie together the overall themes of the film perfectly, whilst simultaneously suggesting so much more about those continuing ideas of cultural and geographical displacement and the journey that began when both of these characters decided to leave home. Although it isn't an easy film to view, given the often controversial depiction of sexual violence and some of Miike's more jaw-dropping cinematic touches, including those infamous moments of self-censorship, the overall feeling that we are left with as the credits appear is entirely overwhelming.
Ley Lines is certainly a controversial and inscrutable work - very much in tune with films like Rainy Dog, Birds and the epic Agitator (2001) with the continual themes of violence, loyalty, family and dislocation
but one that also manages to move the viewer on an emotional level;
eliciting sympathy and understanding for these characters, as well as provoking more immediate reactions that still linger, long after the film has ended. The cast is incredibly varied, featuring a strong mixture of talented new comers like Kazuki Kitamura, Michisuke Kashiwaya and Dan Li, alongside Miike regulars like Tomorowo Taguchi, Naoto Takenaka, Kôji Tsukamoto and the iconic Sho Aikawa. The combination of these bold, affecting and naturalistic performances, combined with the heavily colour-filtered images that employ Miike's regular trademark of spontaneous filming on the streets of Shinjuku, lend the film an intimacy and a sense of urgency that is all the more relevant when we think of the central themes of the story. If you're familiar with Miike's work beyond the more widely seen trio of Dead or Alive, Audition and Ichi the Killer, then Ley Lines is a definite one to watch. With this film, Miike creates a bold and incredibly interesting work that manages to skilfully juggle between moments of brutality and tranquillity, character and action, comedy and drama; while carefully blending them together into a cohesive and ultimately incredibly moving whole.
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