NYAFF 2018: Enjoy the Audacity of LIVERLEAF

The New York Asian Film Festival takes place between June 29 and July 15 in Manhattan. For more information about upcoming films and events, click here.

There’s no other way to put it: Liverleaf is unsettling.

Based on a manga by Rensuke Oshikiri, it’s very tricky to see the film as anything other than a pitch black comedy masquerading as a revenge thriller… a prospect which is all the more unsettling when you realize that it’s supposed to be taking place in junior high school.

The story is simple, in that way that all revenge thrillers should be simple: Nozaki (Anna Yamada), a transfer student from Tokyo, has transferred to a very small town. Catching the attention of the soft spoken Aiba (Hiroya Shimizu) brings down the wrath of Taeko (Rinka Otani) and her squad of giggly, sadistic besties. Things spiral out of control, as they inevitably must, and by film’s end, the graduating class is… significantly smaller.

Thankfully, none of the actors look as young as they’re intended to be playing, but they still feel uncomfortably young to be receiving and inflicting the level of suffering that unfolds.

Liverleaf has the general shape of a revenge thriller, and many of the moves, but everything is pushed to the point of absurdity. It’s the blackest of black comedies, where the laughs come less from any overt humor, and more from the audacity of director Eisuke Nato putting this insanity in front of a camera in the first place.

Seriously, though: chutzpah will take you way farther in this world than tact ever would…

The film is a bit slow to get started, and Nato probably lingers a little too long on the endless assortment of cruelties inflicted on poor Nozaki. There comes a point where the audience is more than ready for those pleated skirt wearing psychopaths to get their comeuppance.

But when that comeuppance actually comes…

Holy shit.

There’s something almost gasp inducing about the vengeance when it finally kicks in. It’s a burst of bloodletting that starts in the blink of an eye and escalates roughly a thousandfold every twenty seconds. It’s over in a matter of minutes, and all you can think is “Jesus Christ, this is a two hour movie… what the fuck are we going to do for the next hour and twenty?”

Of course, the bloodletting doesn’t stop there. There are more targets to be dealt with, and some unexpected twists. The movie is still way longer than it needs to be, but when it gets going, it’s a freight train of mayhem.

There’s a surreal edge to the gore in the film; it never quite feels real, but it’s utterly convincing in its sheer strangeness. Bodies are bent, spindled, folded, mutilated, impaled, splattered, and just generally messed up beyond all hope of repair. And in a deliriously entertaining running gag, nobody ever notices anything wrong, despite the fact nobody makes any effort whatsoever to dispose of any bodies and at least a one of the murders take place roughly fifty feet off of school grounds.

This seems like as good a time as any to once again remind everybody that these characters are all supposed to be about 15 years old.

To their credit, the whole cast is keyed into the gruesome cartoonish nature of it all. Nobody is giving a performance with a surplus of dimensionality here, which is the exact right move, as giving any of these characters any amount of depth would make everyone’s ultimate fate feel borderline on the part of the filmmakers. Yamada sells both the suffering and the dead eyed merciless efficiency of execution. Rinka Otani is downright hilarious in her portrayal of studied indifference and dismissive disdain towards pretty much everyone and everything. As Nozaki’s little sister Shoko, Sena Tamayori overplays the cloying whimsy to the point where you know for a fact that terrible things are in store for her (and they are, too!).

But the true highlights of the film are Aki Morita as the hilariously traumatized teacher Ms. Minami and Rena Ohtsuka as the clearly insane Rumi. Morita creates a seemingly endless amount of variations on the thousand yard stare and for her valiant efforts is rewarded with maybe the single funniest scene in the movie.

And Ohtsuka has the single most disturbing smile I’ve ever seen in a movie.

And. She. Never. Stops. Smiling.

In conclusion, this is a borderline evil movie and we should all be grateful that it exists.

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