All About Lily Chou-Chou

I saw a number of fine films at the just-ended Seattle International Film Festival, but the one that has stuck in my mind the most, indeed haunted me, was Shunji Iwai’s All About Lily Chou-Chou….

All About Lily Chou-Chou is, roughly speaking, a teen-angst film set in contemporary Japan. But it’s not much like any other teen film that I have ever seen. It chronicles a history of pain and humiliation: bullying among 13- and 14-year-old boys and girls (all students at the same junior high school), moving from various forms of petty theft and ritualized physical abuse all the way up to enforced prostitution, rape, and murder. And all this is shown, primarily, from the point of view of the victims–though the film also bears witness to the startling rapidity with which friendships can shift, so that a victim suddenly becomes a torturer.

But such a bald summary doesn’t do justice to the rich moods and textures of this film, which are what make it so extraordinarily moving. For one thing, none of the narration is particularly linear. We get complex, multiple flashbacks, and flashbacks within flashbacks. Different sequences are also presented in different styles, from grainy and fragmented hand-held footage to long-lasting, carefully composed static shots. (Though longer shots predominate over close-ups). Editing and cinematography are extraordinarily varied over the course of the film’s almost 2 1/2 hours. The film is leisurely and contemplative, even when it presents scenes of painful brutality. The movie takes its time to reach its goals; it even seems to be drifting randomly at times, only to lead up to scenes that knit everything together with extraordinary force and concision.

At the center of the narrative is the pop singer Lily Chou-Chou–something like a combination of Faye Wong and Bjork–who provides Yuichi, the protagonist, and his friends with their only escape from the miseries of their everyday lives. Lily’s figure appears on posters and video monitors, but we never see her directly. For her teenage fans, Lily provides the prospect of peacefulness and relief of their torments. The narrative is frequently interrupted by sequences where we read the messages posted on a website devoted to Lily. They talk especially about reaching the Ether, a transcendent realm of peace and fulfillment which is said to be the source of Lily’s music. Sometimes the typing of these messages appears on an otherwise dark screen; other times, it is superimposed on images of Yuichi standing in a green field, listening on his Walkman. These scenes both comment on the narrative and contribute to its development–since the discovery of the RL identities of some of the website’s participants is an important part of the story.

Through all of this, we hear Lily’s music–melancholy and plaintive, but also unearthly and, yes, etherial–on the soundtrack, where it alternates with piano works by Debussy (which are themselves also part of the diegesis, since one of the main characters of the film is a pianist who is always playing Debussy). The conjunction of sound and image is of course a big part of what makes the film so powerful. Because of this, the events that the film narrates are secondary to the feelings that those events evoke; through evocative music and fragmented images, Iwai tracks the most minute shifts of affect in the lives of the characters.

Many individual scenes from All About Lily Chou-Chou stick powerfully in my mind, while at the same time the film as a whole is like quicksilver, continually just evading my grasp. So I am not sure what else to say about it, except that I will certainly have to see it again….