Life in Concert
All About Lily Chou-Chou meets Morvern Callar
By Nicolas Rapold
Both titles are a mouthful, each a misleading prologue. As for the first, it’s not all about a little girl with a lollipop but a group of Japanese teenagers, many of whom worship a self-mythologizing pop star called Lily Chou-Chou. The latter sounds more like a mountain village or a villain than the name of its shell-shocked protagonist, a Scotswoman whose boyfriend has committed suicide. He leaves her a mix tape and an unpublished novel, which, naively punk to his over-determined romanticism, she passes off as her own.
The films themselves befuddled audiences, from Morvern’s open-ended wandering to the precisely adolescent mix of passion and apathy that mark the lives of the junior high Lily fans. But Lynne Ramsay and Shunji Iwai actually work hard to situate us inside their characters’ heads, or rather, between their ears, through a kind of headphone subjectivity. Ramsay expresses her heroine’s narcosis of grief and shock of displacement through a subjective, trance-like soundtrack, as well as silences that swallow you whole. Iwai deploys the alternating contemplative and abrupt sound-bridges and drifting cameras of a melancholy song’s music video, and with great facility, but his greater formal triumph is the expression of collective musical experience through unmusical means. Together, their films form a composite portrait of music at the edge of emotional extremity, and its paradoxes of communion and disconnect.
The imaginary pop idol Lily Chou-Chou is the invisible sun that the students orbit in Iwai’s luminous rural-prefecture landscape. She does not appear onscreen in person (except once, as an apparition on a grainy Jumbotron), but she seems a waking, walking dream in the minds of her young fans. It’s a presence Iwai boldly conveys through the modern teenager’s twist on marathon phone calls and hallway huddles: instant messaging, in a chat room devoted to the singer. In Iwai’s rendering, the screen goes black, sometimes abruptly, as white computer text splashes out, 10 to 15 words in spastic touch-typed bunches. Sometimes Iwai lets the words remain superimposed over the proceeding images, but never enough to push the film into the stuffy vocabulary of multimedia.
Most of the text is couched in the mythos the singer cultivates about “the ether,” a kind of global unconscious that needs tending like chi forces. It may sound dippy or cult-of-personality-ish, but not a single line of sarcasm ever types out in the earnest debates and shared, abstracted agonies of fandom. Far from a pop star’s semantic placeholder, this “ether” in Iwai’s hands comes to represent a social truth about pop music: what distinguishes its endless varieties is not always (or at all) the music itself but the community that listens to it. There may be little melodic difference, for example, between the thousands of punk music scenes, but don’t dare say that to the fans in each. Iwai’s always-imminent image-clearing text intrudes to insist upon music as an experience that lives and breathes through such collectives.
It’s a mindset crucial to the self-grouping of high school, adult society in miniature, and this community through music gives hope to the trials of All About Lily Chou-Chou, which is not a happy film. Faithful to contemporary Japan, there are bullies and their bullied, a particularly painful phenomenon because bullying is both public and private trauma. The pain and shame is both heightened in the constant theater of adolescence and carried about in internalized impotence and anger. The dynamic is embodied by the scene where a clique of girls detour a choral performance into an efficient ritual humiliation of a demure pianist, which thematically unifies the abuse with the perceived home ground of amateur music. Iwai doesn’t shy from even worse abuse, such as a terrifying ambush and assault in an empty factory and constant references to whole underground economies of flesh and shame.
But the events of cruelty, casual and involved, see some relief in the likewise public and private worlds of popular music. Iwai returns to the image of students standing alone in glowworm-green fields, attached to headphones. It’s risky, a consummate music-video image, especially with Iwai’s phosphorescent digital palette, and I’m not even sure it ever entirely escapes that. But with its repetition after the murder at the end of the movie—one of the students standing and listening is Shugo, killed a few minutes earlier—these Elysian fields come to replace the traditional blackout’s “return” to reality out of the dream life of cinema. As the text of credits are superimposed, the uniquely personal experience of these lonely bucolic listeners becomes inseparable from the chat rooms and concerts, where they are unified with that pop-culture infinite—the fan base. As if communing with an angel across great distances but with special intimacy, the students and Lily Chou-Chou contain one another as they share that experience with millions.
The trauma that opens Morvern Callar is more private and viscerally absorbing than Lily Chou-Chou's public bullying, but the milieu is the same: the groups and gatherings that comprise teenage social life. First, the unforgettable opening scene: Morvern spoons with her boyfriend’s dead body on the living room floor, in a silence and darkness broken only by the visual and sonic buzz of cycling Christmas lights. After the note, she discovers another dead letter of sorts, the mix tape he made for her to play after his death. An uncanny property of music is the deep associations we form with specific memories—the song on the radio during a first kiss, or the album worn out while moving into a new apartment. The author of a mix tape makes this process a conscious goal, a love letter written with the words and music of another but embodying the maker’s own inhabitable preferences and personality. Morvern’s mix tape is the voice that remains of her boyfriend, her only connection, and as played by Samantha Morton, with her huge blue eyes and cosmic-baby head, she could be a space traveler, headphones for helmet. Plugged in, she walks a ribbon bridge to her boyfriend over the world’s tumult. Even as Morvern’s music seemingly unifies her with her lover, it cocoons her in grief and memory. In her shock, she goes out to party that night with her best friend and is surrounded by other young people to whom she repeats the macabre literal truth that her boyfriend is back home. Through Ramsay’s subjective sound design, we hear what she hears, which sometimes means her mix tape and sometimes the music at parties. The distinction is blurred, for she seems to swim in altered-state ambience wherever she goes—neo-tribal underwater rhythms from Can, Seventies and Sixties retro by Boards of Canada and Broadcast, or the Nancy Sinatra-Lee Hazelwood Phaedra-ballad “Some Velvet Morning,” probably an anachronism no matter when it was played. Once, Ramsay even takes us aside and, wisely resisting the pleasure that would be total absorption cuts the soundtrack to what Morvern’s headphone music might sound like to someone else in the room.
With her boyfriend’s posthumous blessing (and bank account) Morvern treats her friend to a holiday in the sun, joining the Kumbha Mela-like pilgrimage of British youth to Ibiza. Here, groups again define music and vice versa, and Morvern’s solitude sets in relief the partygoing culture. One night, she sits on her balcony and watches toilet-paper fights in the monolithic hotel across her, which Ramsay frames and lights as if a pueblo city carved out of a cliff. The temporary City of Party pulses with dance beats in unseen rooms, while Morvern watches a roach audibly crawl under a door, in a moment hallucinogenic and prehistoric.
Morvern’s moment of earthly connection arrives when, wandering the hallway, she hears a young man sobbing. It sounds as if something happened to his mother, but they say little. She reaches out to comfort, they kiss, they cling dazed. Then something breaks, they strip, and now they are chasing each other around the room, jumping up and down on the bed. They’re babbling, shouting, but Ramsay turns off all sound in the room and plays only the soundtrack, an atmospheric dub-reggae instrumental. Gaping between bass line and the rhythm guitar is an aching empty space. Amidst the clamor outside, fleeting communion in sexual mourning.
Morbid ambivalence marks the ending of both films. The bullied Yuichi in Lily Chou-Chou kills his tormentor, outside a Lily concert he never gets to attend. (The scene is barely lit; darkness seems fatal in Iwai’s glowing creation.) The act drains the life out of him, too, and he withers away, a boy who has seen a ghost of his creation. Punning on the visual cliché of the guilt-ridden suicide, Iwai shows him standing on a chair in a room, cropping his head in a way that suggests a hanging, but his agonies instead are the ones that will leak like waste dumps for years. A counterpart to Iwai’s listeners in fields, our last view of Morvern is a disorienting cut to a slow-motion portrait in an anonymous dance club, amniotically lit. She has sold her boyfriend’s book for a fortune, but her expression leaves unclear whether the star child ever quite returns to earth. Is it liberation or escapism—above the fray or permanently Out There?
Ramsay and Iwai may exercise moral and narrative reticence, but it comes not from a top-down global view but from plunging deeply and faithfully into their young characters. Both merge the single traumatic moment with an extended, fraught stage in life, whether entering or emerging from adolescence. Their modulations of music and emotion, stasis and motion, evoke life as it stretches before and around you, at the eye of the storm: There’s calm, possibly, but the views are terrifying.