Thursday, March 31, 2011

Instant Swamp

Image courtesy of Third Window Films   
Infectious Fun

If there's one thing that quietly and moderately frustrates me about film is that so many movies refuse to be any fun without tacking on some sort of lazy genre narrative. It's a particular sore point with comedy a lot of the time - even the obscene Apatows or Farralleys will often tack on a bland rom-com subplot to keep stupid members of the audience "entertained". Surely the jokes are enough? Sometimes I wish films would just be fun without having an overblown and ill-fitting romantic conclusion.

Instant Swamp is not going to blow your fucking mind or anything like that, but it is fun, and is pleasantly structureless about it. Kumiko Asao plays Haname, a magazine editor in her late twenties / early thirties. She is experiencing a bad luck streak which she blames on her disposal of a cat statuette in a swamp during her childhood, while also vocally discrediting the supernatural suspicions of her friends, family and colleagues. After her mother is involved in accident, Haname discovers a letter suggesting that she may have been misinformed about her biological father. So she seeks out the man mentioned in the letter, an eccentric antique shop owner and prankster known as Light Bulb.

Plot, delightfully, is only a minor concern in Instant Swamp. Well, the whole thing does follow a rough and entertaining central narrative. That's not what makes the film so endearing though. Instead, it's the colourful characters and amusing, surreal interludes that make Instant Swamp a joy. The film is full of such tangents - from tracking down an electronic fortune telling machine to misplaced rabbits to racing out for a soft drink before a tap overflows (it makes sense in context I swear). They're light but entertaining vignettes, adding the film a sense of energy and humour. They all ultimately slot together to provide a coming-of-age story, albeit a basic one. It doesn't waste time with redundant formula - it's just a series of bizarre people and situations. That's great in my opinion, and something that should be embraced by others. My Neighbour the Yamadas had a similarly laissez faire attitude with equal success. Again, hardly game changing stuff, but it's very hard to begrudge Instant Swamp and its sometimes grounded, sometimes fantastical flights of fancy.

Shot with bold and bright colours, this is the first film I've seen from director Satoshi Miki and I'm certainly curious to delve into his previous works now. Throughout a distinctive style and playful tone go a long way into drawing you into the world. Asao is at the centre, in a performance that reminded me of Sally Hawkins in Happy Go Lucky: shrill at times, but overall an extremely likable sort. Her infectious cheeriness even in the face of extreme bad luck won me over. While there's no super happy conclusion, it all rounds up nicely and cheerfully. However, some audience members may question an unusual, surreal climactic sequence which is best not to ruin. It's more than a little curious how the instant swamp of the title fits in!

Personally, I found it delightful, like the rest of the film. There were bits and pieces where the comedy probably went to broad, looking for a cheap chuckle too many (such as a jump-suited 'recycler' hitting his head off a door frame two times too many). Whatever, though: it all ends with Hanamae and a big, wide smile on her face. That basically sums up the whole film: a lighthearted romp, content to just be what it is. Sparkling with detail ('Milo Sludge') and character, I found Instant Swamp to be a thoroughly entertaining two hours, which allows you to switch off your brain without pummeling you with a cheesy ending or sentimental streak. That, in the wide world of mainstream filmed entertainment, is all too rare.

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