Korean(?!!) Movie Review #5: Linda Linda Linda (2005)

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Starring (L-R): Aki Maeda (Kyoko), Yu Kashii (Kei), Shiori Sekine (Nozomi), and Bae Doo-na (Son). Written and directed by Nobuhiro Yamashita. In Japanese (and some Korean) with English subtitles. 115 minutes

As a (very) fledgling film reviewer, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to relying on other, more experienced reviewers for guidance sometimes. So, I’m really struggling with why they made so many glaring mistakes about Linda Linda Linda.

Add to that a number of pithy one-liners that there’s actually no evidence for, and especially the willful ignorance displayed in shoehorning coming-of-age narratives into the movie, then I’ll seriously be taking all “expert” movie reviews with a big grain of salt in the future.

Despite what you may read elsewhere then, the movie is about a high school girl band that has just lost its guitarist (Moe) and lead singer (Rinko) to a hand injury and argument respectively, and opens with remaining members Nozomi, Kyoko, and Kei having to decide if they will still perform at the end of the high school festival week in just three days. As you’ve already guessed, they do, choosing to sing the iconic 1987 punk-rock hit Linda Linda (and 2 other songs) by The Blue Hearts.

But keeping Nozomi on bass, Kyoko on drums, and moving Kei from keyboard to guitar, still leaves them short of a vocalist. On a whim, they invite Korean exchange student Son to fill Rinko’s place, despite her occasional difficulties with Japanese.

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Son gets asked 21 minutes into the movie, and the remaining 94 are about the band practicing (spoilers begin) over the next two days and nights, culminating in them performing on the day as planned, albeit much later and wetter than expected. Yes, that’s it. It’s not an underdog story, there’s no hint of fame and success once the performance is over, no big romances, nor are there any jealous rivals. There aren’t even any major dramas or even mild arguments between the four major characters either (spoilers end). Indeed, it’s probably the most minimalist plot you’ll ever encounter, no matter how much of a movie buff you are.

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While fans of director Nobuhiro Yamashita may appreciate this, his previous works likewise featuring “aimless youth with nothing better to do than walk or sit around”, it’s easy to appreciate why others might find it slow and ponderous. One reviewer understandably wrote it off as “incident-free pic [that] will induce sleep” for instance, while another quite plausibly claimed that there were points when he was watching the movie where he “would leave, prepare part of lunch, and return, to find that literally nothing had happened.”

What’s more, the English marketing for it was very misleading, Rob Humanick at Slant mentioning that the press notes for movie suggested “a foreign regurgitation of stale conventions from the American teenage flick,” and that it was “difficult to not expect something of a J-pop remake of Bring It On that substitute[d] an all-girl cover band for sexed-up cheerleaders.” Also, the US trailer suggested something much quicker and more comical than what audiences ultimately got:

In light of all that, I must concede that I’d probably be far less forgiving of the movie’s glacial pace if it was about high school boys rather than girls. But it takes much more than 18 year-old Japanese schoolgirls to get me to like a movie so much, and I’m sure other heterosexual male and lesbian reviewers likewise aren’t so shallow, let alone everyone else. Why, then, does the movie get almost universal praise?

One reason is Bae Doo-na. A long-time fan, I can’t be objective about her myself, so consider Tom Mes’s description of her performance at Midnight Eye instead, which is quite representative of the accolades she has received:

…[a] major factor to the film’s success is the casting of Korean actress Bae Du-Na in the role of Son. Several years older than her teenage co-stars [26 in 2005] and more accustomed to mature roles in the likes of Park Chan-Wook’s Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Hyeon Nam-Seob’s Saving My Hubby, Bae easily outshines the rest of the cast.

Or, as G. Allen Johnson of the San Fransisco Chronicle put it:

Not conventionally beautiful, with gamin-like features and a seemingly permanent mope, Bae is the Christina Ricci of South Korea, with a similar ability to inform a simple character with many layers, most notably in the Korean gem Take Care of my Cat. That makes her a perfect fit for the minimalist milieu of director Nobuhiro Yamashita…

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I beg to differ on her not being “conventionally beautiful”: mirroring her acting abilities, a quick Google image search reveals she can be as feminine or as androgynous as her role requires, but let’s not go there. Rather, that “seemingly permanent mope” is a good way to describe Son’s social awkwardness as both an exchange student and — I suspect — a natural geek, and through conveying this so well she ironically makes a far more convincing teenager than her real-life teenage co-stars (although to be fair, their characters didn’t call for it).

With such a focus on her though, it’s surprising that Johnson would write that “Son can barely speak a word of Japanese, let alone sing it”. This is simply not true: while she does sometimes struggle with her words, or needs people to repeat themselves, she never has any real difficulties communicating. Nevertheless, Johnson’s assertion is echoed by virtually every other reviewer, which leaves me wondering if there were some mistakes in translations, and/or if there are other versions out there? Humanick at Slant, for example, mentions that the funniest scene in the movie is when Son attempts “to overcome her language difficulties in a restaurant where only paying customers are allowed to use the restrooms”, something which is strangely lacking in the file I downloaded (which, as always, I’ve watched twice).

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Another potential misunderstanding is that, unless you’re familiar with either Korean or Japanese, it’s not always clear which language Son is speaking (Korean was only indicated by brackets in the version I watched). This becomes relevant (spoilers begin, including image below) when she sings by herself in a karaoke room, revealing her to be much more confident in her native Korean, and especially in a later scene (see here for a video) when Son is approached by long-time secret admirer Yusaka (nickname Makki) to confess his love for her. When you realize that he does so in halting Korean (which even astute reviewers like Didion at Feminéma missed, and Johnson of the San Fransisco Chronicle mistook as poetry), then you can’t help but feel much sorrier for the guy when Son quickly rejects him, especially if you’ve ever had your weeks of unrequited love and wooing preparations dismissed in an instant yourself.

Because of that, I was much less sympathetic to the spin Alyx Veseyputs on Son’s reaction over at Feminist Music Geek:

The rest of the girls look through the window of an abandoned classroom, watching their lead singer choose the band, and her friends, over some guy who happens to like her but that she doesn’t know.

I don’t mean to single out Alyx, who otherwise writes an excellent review. It’s just that it points to the tendency of many other reviewers and commenters to overstress the female homosocial elements of this movie. In the New York Times for instance, Jeannette Catsoulis is so gushing about how “the film’s sweet, slow rhythms bind them together” that you can be forgiven for thinking that they don’t think about boys at all. Admittedly, Catsoulis is clearly pressed for space, but still: the reality is that not only is Son very inquisitive about Kei’s history with Yomoki, her ex, but Kyoko’s attention is just as much on her own crush Kazuya as on her band-mates. And indeed it’s precisely that which the four of them talk about — and bond over — during their last communal meal (spoilers end).

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But don’t get me wrong: I am definitely not saying that the boys in the movie should be given more attention, that it’s in any way about them, or that the movie’s main focus isn’t indeed about high-school girls bonding. After all, that last is the second reason the movie has received such high praise, especially from, naturally enough, women.

This presents an interesting question however, which I’d like to pose to female readers: just how genuine are the situations and the dialogue? I ask because following Jane Austen’s example, who never has two male characters talking alone to each other in any of her novels, I’d be very hesitant to ever do the same with female ones (something to consider with — but not apologize for — male-written and/or directed movies that fail the Bechdel Test). If they ring true though, then male director Yamashita, and crucially also writer, somehow has really hit the spot.

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A related question is raised by Burl Burlingame’s review at Honolulu Star Bulletin, which opens with:

I have a friend who used to play in an all-girls punk band. She said rehearsals took forever because they’d play one song, talk about their feelings for an hour, play one song, talk about their feelings for an hour … which pretty much describes Linda, Linda, Linda, Nobuhiro Yamashita’s slacker success story about girls who form a band for a high-school talent show.

Taken out of context, I would have condemned Burlingame for perpetuating gender stereotypes, but now I’m not so sure. What do any female musicians amongst you make of it?

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Either way, I can understand all the one-liners on grrrl-power bonding then, but can’t overlook the blinders some of the reviewers seemed to have on. Humanick at Slant, for instance, describes the movie as “an emotionally attuned look at adolescent life amid the invisible social structures of high school with an underlying emphasis on gender and cultural barriers to boot, all surprisingly free of manipulation”, but I’m at a complete loss as to what those barriers are myself. Likewise, Catsoulis asserts in the New York Times (yes — she’s an easy target) that “the irritations and tedium of high school life are staged with refreshing simplicity”, whereas in reality these are glaring for their absence, the unregimented nature of their school life greatly puzzling me until I realized that the movie began already well into the school’s festival week.

(Update — I forgot to mention that one minor flaw in the movie is that it would have been unlikely for Son to have bonded so well the other band members in just over two days; starting the movie a couple of weeks earlier, giving a more realistic time-frame for this, would surely have required only minimal plot and technical changes)

It also puzzled Alyx at Feminist Music Geek, who wrote:

I’m also not entirely clear about the nature of Japanese schools. I came through an underfunded, less-than-superlative Texas public school system. Thus, Paran Maum’s school seems like a tony liberal arts magnate where teenagers are given considerable support and resources for their artistic inclinations, thus implying that the students come from respectable middle- to upper-middle-class families. But I’m not sure if this high school is exceptional in Japan….while I initially feel the need to mention the classed dimensions of privilege that allow the girls the fine arts education and leisure time to form a band (instead of, say, take jobs or quit school to support their families), I don’t want to suggest that what I see as an American viewer is in accord with Japan’s classed realities.

Whether this surprising freedom the girls have is the norm or just for the duration of festival week however, that they behave more like they’re in university than high school is crucial for the movie’s last major source of appeal: the ability to project coming-of-age narratives onto it (spoilers begin).

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As I stated in the introduction, I actually think this is quite misguided: the girls (re)form a band, they practice, they perform, the end. Where’s the coming of age drama in that? But I can empathize (spoilers end). Given how free the girls are to do things under their own initiative, to set their own hours, and to come and go between activities as they please, things utterly denied to most Japanese (and Korean) teenagers, it’s difficult not to see them as near-adults. In particular, although Nozomi’s background is woefully underexplored (you know no more about her by the end of the movie than at the beginning), Kei above seems to to have had quite a history with — and lingering feelings for — much older ex Yomoki below, yet stoically accepts that he’ll be moving on to Tokyo (personally, it wasn’t until I was much older that I realized life was like that).

Combine that with being the de facto leader of the group, and things like getting the band, sans permission from parents or teachers, halfway across town to get some extra practice at Yokomi’s studio, then in short she seems much more capable and assured than your average 18 year-old.

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Mention must also be made of ThrownMuse’s comment here (difficult to find on the site; look for the 6 June 2007 entry) that “the movie has a very subtle feminist and punk-rock aesthetic that I don’t think every viewer picks up on”. Which would include me, and, again, it’s annoying that it’s not elaborated on. But perhaps Alyx of Feminist Music Geek fills the gap:

I do find the girls’ fandom of The Blue Hearts, whose songs they cover, to be quite interesting. For one, girls identifying with a fast, hard-rocking all-male rock band, while at no time talking about how cute certain members are, seems to suggest a wider range of possibilities for who can influence a girl. The band even goes so far as to call themselves Paran Maum, which is “blue hearts” in Korean (an indication of Son’s importance to the band). There’s a lot of talk on this blog about the importance of women and girls influencing one another in popular music. However, we shouldn’t short shrift what it means for girls finding their sound and voice through boys and men or ignore the progressive and possibly queer potential in girls identifying with boys. Like Patti Smith, PJ Harvey, and Sleater-Kinney before them, these girls don’t plug in and rock out to be with the band — they are the band and want to thrash just as hard as the boys.

I find any queer potential here a little forced though, both because of the characters’ random choice of the band in the movie and the mundane reason Yamashita chose to use it, as he explained below in a Cinema Strikes Back interview. But I’d be happy to be persuaded otherwise:

CSB: Was Linda Linda Linda always the main song or were there other possibilities you considered?

Nobuhiro Yamashita: Linda Linda Linda is such an iconic song done by the Blue Hearts. Everybody knows it. When you hear the Blue Hearts, it’s the song that first comes to peoples’ minds. It was always the first choice for the main song we were going to use. (With respect to) other songs (in the film), we did have many choices we had to go through.

Finally, no matter how cliched, I’d be lying if didn’t admit that the music didn’t immediately remind of me of some scenes from Kill Bill Volume 1, most notably the 5.6.7.8’s in “The House of Blue Leaves” nightclub:

Even if — ahem — it turns that they don’t actually sing any Japanese songs in the movie, I’m definitely more curious about Japanese rock now (it helps that I’m also heavily into retro-themed Japanese artwork like this too {source}, but which I could obviously never put up on a Korea-related blog). And perhaps you too, for nobody watching can’t help but sing along to Linda Linda by the end of the movie.

And on that note, this music video isn’t from the movie, so don’t worry about spoilers. Sing away!^^

The original Blue Hearts song for comparison: