And the lineup of films that appeals to an acquired taste continues, so far with Diary of a Shinjuku Thief, Shohei Imamura's A Man Vanishes, and now Nagisa Oshima's Stranger in Paradise. While it's aimed to tackle themes like racism which seemed to be shunned at the time, there's a pretty good mix of humour that takes the mickey out of a number of events, and really requires some patience as well because everything seemed to have turned over its head and started afresh at the mid way mark, so don't be looking to walk out of the screening hall, or eject that DVD just yet.
Stranger in Paradise opens in a bizarre fashion, where three students (Kazuhiko Kato, Osamu Kitayama, Norihiko Hashida) strip down to their underwear at a beach and monkey around as if after watching Bloody Thirst and got inspired by the character's iconic image of having a gun pointed at his head. Eventually they do hit the sea proper, and a hand emerges from under the sand to swap two out of three of their clothing. All this played out over a very kitsch song that seems like chipmunks on steroids. It turns out that two Korean soldiers (Kei Sato and Cha Dei-Dang) had AWOL from Korea and found themselves wanting a new life in Japan, and with the Japanese authorities hot on their trail to repatriate them back, they need to find some scapegoats to pose as them, hence the sitting duck students.
In a jiffy we see the three students get sent to Pusan, then to jail, then to an American camp in Vietnam, then dying out there at the warfront. Only that this happens in so comedic a fashion that you'll begin to question the legitimacy of it all the moment it begins. The film consists of countless of surreal moments such as this one, including one involving life and death, repetition in a cycle, and as mentioned, having everything repeat itself almost all over again, though the second time round it marked some attitude changes, where the students take their knowledge of what's to come, and goes along with the game from the onset. Other surreal moments will involve character motivation and design changes especially that of a husband and wife team, and an interview segment out of the blue where (I believe it's staged) people on the street are asked their nationality, and we realized who outnumbers who – the result which has to be taken with a pinch of salt.
Somehow there are a few common threads, ideas and elements that run through the films so far. For starters, the music – they're all infectious and take some time to get out of your head, and then there's the shared dream landscapes the characters often find themselves in, like that in Sing a Song of Sex, and now Sinner in Paradise, where they seem to “wake up” from time to time yet unable to find themselves in what is deemed to be reality. I'm not even sure if there is one in the film to begin with, and wonder if paradise the title alludes to, is just that – a place without a proper beginning, or end.
Perhaps one of the key pointed moments that address the issue of racism head on involve the Korean soldiers being terribly insistent that the Japanese students wear the former's military clothing. In the midst of a policeman, the Japanese students, through a series of questions, realize that the authorities simply have no idea what the soldiers looked like, and are only following orders to look for anyone wearing those recognizable togs. It's quite clear that it alludes to how we are quick to judge others on the basis of appearance and from what we see on the outside, rather than to spend time to look into something more deeper and meaningful than appearances. The ending also saw that realization and reconciliation coming too little too late, and has something it wants to say about the Vietnam war with the use of a recognizable motif. The notion of Koreans not killing Koreans can also suggest a larger picture that we shouldn't be killing ourselves. OK, I think I've gone overboard in desperately trying to spot some meaning in the film.
It will probably take repeat screenings to truly appreciate the ideas that are put forth in an oblique fashion since with each scene comes more things that are curiouser and curiouser. At least it's peppered with comedy that you can laugh at while perplexed at the more stranger things that unfold.