Uchida Eiji’s black comedy Lowlife Love (Gesu no Ai) confirms what every Japanese film industry insider already knows: The business can be brutal, especially for marginal types struggling to get a leg up – or keep from being booted.
The director who is the title “lowlife” is in the latter category. Having made one indie film years ago, Tetsuo (Shibukawa Kiyohiko) is struggling to get the second underway, while resorting to various dodges to avoid that dire fate – a real job.
One is an acting school he runs for young (and not-so-young) hopefuls, while promising them roles in his new movie, which looks about as likely to materialize as Godot. His real purpose, however, is to bed his female students or failing that, sexually harassing them whenever the mood strikes him. Tetsuo, that unregenerate lowlife, is contemptible in every way but one: He is a stubborn idealist about the movies.
So when Minami (Okano Maya), an aspiring actress fresh from the boondocks, and Ken (Oshinari Shugo), a beginning scriptwriter, wander into his orbit, Tetsuo, no dummy, sees talent – and dares to dream big again.
Based on true stories about the indie film world that director and scriptwriter Uchida heard over the years (while claiming in interviews that he was never guilty of such ‘lowlife’ behavior himself), the film begins as yet another slacker comedy, but quickly turns scabrous, if not deadly serious.
Though Tetsuo is bad enough – women in the audience, especially, may feel like roasting him alive in his own porn collection – hardly anyone emerges unsoiled from what the film depicts in nearly every frame as a dirty business.
There is Kida (Denden), a veteran producer who swaggers like a big-shot, but is shamelessly working the industry’s exploitation fringes. There is the suave, smooth-talking Kano (Furutachi Kanji), despised by Tetsuo for deserting the indie cause for commercial success, but adulated by the wannabes who cling to his every word. And finally there is Shinjo (Tsuda Kanji), a smarmy TV director who is basically Tetsuo at a higher paygrade, soliciting casual sex in exchange for – what exactly?
In the midst of these sharks moves Minami, now wised- up and coolly determined to use her very real talent to reach the top. Along the way she incurs the jealousy of Mamoru (Hosoda Yoshihiko), Tetsuo’s fanatically loyal gay disciple, not to mention the envy of other acting school students after Tetsu contemptuously tosses them aside to make Minami his star.
But in a world that can be not just un-PC, but blatantly misogynist, Minami gamely perseveres, while cannily using sex to pry open the door to success. That is, she refuses to be used and discarded by the male powers-that-be. Instead, she turns the erotic game to her advantage.
The film itself is low-budget, with producer Adam Torel doing anything and everything to get it made, from selling off his record collection to raising money on Kickstarter, but unlike his struggling hero, Torel was able to secure an outstanding cast, including lead Shibukawa Kiyohiko, a versatile actor who often plays lovable goofs, but in this film brilliantly brings out his inner slimeball.
Also, Uchida may have based his script on anecdotes, but he keeps the story from becoming too episodic, while working in clever twists to reveal uncomfortable truths, not just get laughs.
As cynical as it may seem, Lowlife Love offers a message of hope for all the would-be Academy Award winners out there: Dream big dreams – but watch your back.