Swallowtail Butterfly

My 50+ mile bike ride today left me tuckered out. I wasn't expecting to finish Swallowtail Butterfly when I popped it into the DVD player about three hours ago, but I had to at least make a dent in it since it was already long overdue back to Scarecrow.
What unfolded was like one of those scenes in the movies, where someone has been auditioning candidates for lead singer for his band all day and hasn't found anyone remotely suitable. As he's about to pack up, bored, discouraged, one last candidate bursts in the door looking disheveled, harried. He says auditions are closed, but she begs.
Just one song, mister, please.
Alright, fine, he says. You can sing while I pack up. He doesn't expect much.
He begins packing, not even looking her way. She composes herself, closes her eyes, takes a few deep breaths, and then opens her mouth to sing.
And suddenly he stops and looks up, in awe of the talent he's witnessing. He realizes he's found her.
That's how I felt watching Shunji Iwai's Swallowtail Butterfly. With every passing minute, more awed and delighted. A few times I burst out laughing, sitting there by myself in the basement. It woke me up and kept me riveted for over two hours, and the next thing I knew it was three in the morning.
Iwai's movies are difficult to describe. I recently watched All About Lily Chou-Chou, also brilliant, and haven't quite found the words to put it in perspective. Of the two, Swallowtail Butterfly has a more coherent narrative. Still, you can summarize the plot of Pulp Fiction, or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, or City of God, but it only goes so far in capturing the dazzle.
Swallowtail Butterfly follows the fates of several Yentowners, or immigrants who have come to Japan to try and make their fortunes. I'm not sure if the period in question is based on history, but it doesn't matter much. Most of these immigrants live in shantytowns around the edge of some Japanese city. One of these immigrants, a young girl, is left on her own after her mother dies. Her mother's fellow hookers grab her mother's money and dump the young girl off in another part of town where she's passed around from one prostitute to another until one, named Glico, takes pity on her and adopts her, dubbing her Ageha.
Glico is nicknamed the madonna of Yentown, beloved by many for her beauty, generous heart, and singing voice. She has a group of ragged friends who run a dilapidated auto repair shack outside town in the countryside.
One day, one of Glico's customers gets frisky with her and Ageha. Her friend and bodyguard, a former boxer, rushes in and rescues her, but in the process knocks the customer out the second story window onto the street below. The whole gang carries the body into the woods to dispose of it, but as they do so, they discover a mysterious cassette tape inside the man, behind his liver. The song on the tape? Frank Sinatra's "My Way." But that's not all that's on the tape.
From there, the plot explodes outward in a spiral, gathering together disparate plot threads and winding them together in a Chihuly-shaped story. As with movies like Pulp Fiction and Magnolia, odd coincidences provide surprising moments of both serendipity and misfortune.
Iwai has the gift of some of the Tarantino-Scorsese set to merge all types of music with moving pictures in seamless, resonant mixes. Real-life pop singer Chara, of an actual band named the Yentown band, plays Glico, and she's a revelation as an actor, flaunting her coy sexuality and voice to seduce all around her. The camera can't stop seeking her out. Hiroshi Mikami (as Fei Hong), Yosuke Eguchi (as Ryou Ryanki), and Mickey Curtis (as a friendly back street doctor and tattoo artist) also impress.
Iwai favors handheld shots with either natural or extremely artificial lighting. Much of the footage resembles video, and Iwai allows bright lights in otherwise dark environments to bloom across the screen as in an impressionist painting. It isn't empty stylistic preening--Iwai wants a loose, kinetic energy to govern his movies, and the handheld footage and excessive lighting effects reinforce that. The violence that does occur in his movies is of the cartoonish type in Tarantino's movies, evoking unlikely humor.
How do you catch this movie? If you're in Seattle, you can rent it from Scarecrow. I have to return it tomorrow. If you're elsewhere and don't have a video store like Scarecrow near you (that's just about everyone), you can rent it online from Nicheflix or purchase it from YesAsia. Perhaps Tarantino will use his powers to convince Miramax to distribute it here in the U.S. just as directors like he and Scorsese and Coppola have done with undiscovered foreign gems in years past.