The New York Asian Film Festival ran from August 28th to September 12th. For further details, click here.

By now Japanese director Sabu could be considered a mainstay of the New York Asian Film Festival. A gifted and endlessly idiosyncratic filmmaker, his movies never fail to offer something a unique moviegoing experience. And his 2019 supernatural dramedy whatszit Dancing Mary, making it’s North American debut as part of the New Cinema From Japan series, is no exception.

The film opens, in a typical oddball flourish, intercutting the investigation of a haunted space, seemingly in the middle of nowhere with a pair of legs riding a skateboard through the urban expanse. The legs belong to Fujimoto, a youthful and indolent civil servant who finds himself assigned to deal with said space, a decrepit dance hall due for demolition to make way for luxury apartments and high end shopping. And, as it turns out, legitimately haunted, by the titular spectre, eerily assayed by Bando Nozomi.

Unable to shirk his duties, he enlists the aid of a troubled high school student with psychic powers that allow her to see ghosts (among other, slightly more demonstrative talents) to help Mary resolve the unfinished business that is keeping her from crossing over into the afterlife. Which, inevitably, requires enlisting the further aid of a ghost Yakuza with a very sharp katana.

For the uninitiated, this is actually counts as a downright prosaic story coming from a guy like Sabu.

The most obvious touchpoint for Dancing Mary is J-Horror; minus the skateboarding, the opening scene wouldn’t feel all that out of place in a Hideo Nakata picture. But the generally restless director can’t help but bounce between tones and genres like a pinball. And as always, he makes the disparate parts cohere by synching them with his own very specific wavelength, even if in the end it’s to a less successful degree than some of his earlier ventures I’ve experienced.

The big gimmick of the film is the stylistic trick Sabu uses to illustrate the spirit world: the girl sees the world in black and white, with all the spirits of the departed fully visible, replete with the wounds that caused their demise; by holding Fujimoto’s hand, she allows him to see and communicate with the ghosts as well. One of the more impressive aspects of the film is just how much mileage they get out of such a simple effect. The physical contact comes into play for comic gags (I hope you like running jokes about our main character being accused of pedophilia!), tension (seeing the spirit world means that the spirits can see you right back… and hurt you), and emotional reveals (about which I will say no more). The inventiveness on display is a highlight.

Also a highlight: Ishibashi Ryo as the Yakuza Spirit, known as Thousand Cuts… for extremely obvious reasons. In retrospect I don’t know why I didn’t assume that there would be a set piece where an 18th century oyabun goes on a killing spree against modern Yakuza ghosts in order to track down the location of the rockabilly romeo that broke Mary’s heart (Yoshimira Kaito, very funny as the rollicking Johnny). Ryo brings a gravitas to the role that elevates it above the random gag it might have been in less disciplined hands.

It’s probably not an accident that the ghosts prove to be by far the livelier presences in the film, but it has to be said that the unfortunate side effect is that our main characters prove underwhelming by comparison. Kataoka Naoto and Yamada Aina do perfectly fine in their roles, but they’re pretty thinly written. Fujimoto’s arc of learning to dedicate himself to a cause don’t make a lot of sense considering the frankly ridiculous amount of effort he goes to on behalf of his job, and I’m not sure if Aina’s character even gets a name. They’re nothing close to a disaster, but a slightly stronger center might have done wonders to paper over some of the films weaker points.

Then again perhaps not, because the larger issue here is how choppy and plodding the movie is at times. Scenes go on for too long (there’s a scene at a hospital with a pair of comic relief terminal cancer patients that seems to last an eternity), plot points are thrown in with no payoff (Aina’s dangerous telekinetic powers that seem to disappear with no explanation), and a story that’s just plain full of holes; there’s a subplot where Fujimoto’s co-workers think he’s abandoned the job so they bring in the Yakuza, but raises about a hundred questions about how Fujimoto is actually able to get anything he does accomplished. For every scene that works, there’s another scene that leaves you scratching your head or checking you watch, and in the end, it winds up being less than the sum of its parts.

Still, no Sabu movie is completely without merit. There’s a spooky, funny, occasionally thrilling movie buried among all the excesses of Dancing Mary, and if nothing else it’s probably bound to be one of the more unique moviegoing experiences for anyone who can overlook the bloat and the fuzziness.

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