REVIEW: First Love (2019)

Leo (Masataka Kubota) is a young amateur boxer who gets knocked out in the ring and diagnosed with a brain tumour. When he meets the drug-addicted sex worker Yuri (Sakurako Kanishi), he gets unwittingly dragged into a drug-smuggling operation involving the Yakuza, a Chinese Triad, and a corrupt police officer.

Director Takashi Miike is back in action with a new Tokyo-set crime-focused action-comedy. He has always demonstrated himself as a highly versatile film-maker: recent films have included thrillers, manga adaptations, comedies, period films, and science fiction. First Love, however, lands him back on very familiar ground. This is comfort food for his fans, relying on well-worn genre conventions and familiar moments of absurd violence. It is all home ground for Miike, turning First Love into an easily digestible confection. There is nothing particularly innovative about this film, but for his fans it is an enormous amount of fun.

Masataka Kubota is a strong lead as Leo. He begins the film listless and disaffected, winning boxing matches but failing to show any enthusiasm to the crowd. When a blow to the head leads to him finding he has a terminal brain tumour, he has even less purpose in life. It is only when he rescues Yuri, a young woman sold by her father into sex work to repay his debts, that he finds a reason to keep living. Since he is going to die anyway, Leo grows actively fearless in the face of all manner and faction of organised criminal. He pairs up well with Sakurako Kanishi as the manic dreamgirl Yuri. They handle the film’s comedic moments with a deadpan charm.

They are surrounded by a terrific supporting cast. Shota Sometani is superb as the overly ambition but relatively incompetent gangster Kase, who drives the accidental bodycount through the roof as he attempts to play two sides against each other and outwit a police detective seeking out a McGuffin-esque sports bag full of drugs. Also hugely entertaining is pop artist Becky as Julie, who starts a relentless chase for revenge against Kase that grows more ridiculous as it goes.

The action is smartly framed and gloriously excessive, including shoot-outs, punch-ups, car chases, and sword-fights. The humour gets regularly inappropriate and absurd. Yuri, forced onto drugs by her pimp, constantly hallucinates her grotesque father as a weedy middle-aged man wearing nothing but daggy underpants and a white sheet. Characters die either in sudden and unexpected ways, or in bizarrely drawn out lingering fashions. The violence is shocking. The humour is frantic. For long-term fans of Miike’s work it is overly familiar, and may feel a little ordinary as a result. For those who have never experienced his comedic works before it is furiously packed with action, and unexpectedly laced with a rather sweet sense of romance. Even middle-of-the-road Miike is going to surpass other filmmakers at their very best. This is his 103rd feature film as director. You may forget half of what happens here within a day, but you will still be happy to go see film #104.

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