Masanori Tominaga's The Pavillion Salamandre just
came out of nowhere. It went by completely unnoticed on its initial
release, the addition of Jo Odagiri being the only hook that put this
film on the radar of a select few in the West. Looking back after
watching the film, it's not difficult to see why they didn't even bother
to promote it over here, but that shouldn't stop you from seeking it
out when you have the chance. The experience alone is worth the gamble.
If the name Tominaga sounds familiar, it's because I've written several reviews for Mai Tominaga's films (Wool 100%, Rinco's Restaurant)
in the past. While I haven't been able to figure out any clear
connection between the two directors, judging from their respective
styles it wouldn't surprise me in the least if there was some kind of
family connection between these two. Even though the both of them make
very distinct films, there is a certain familiarity to their output that
links them together.
The Pavillion Salamandre is one of those film that isn't overly weird,
but manages to create an off-key atmosphere that lasts an entire film.
Strange dialogues, quirky characters and unnatural plot twists make for a
very fun and intriguing whole. Chances are of course that Tominaga's
style won't suit you, if that's the case then this will no doubt be a
horrible trial to sit through. But if it does somehow manage to stick,
The Pavillion Salamandre is a film that will stay with you for a long
time to come. It's a gamble, but definitely worth the risk.
The story is difficult to capture in a few lines, but I'll give it a
shot anyway. Central to the story is Kinjiro, a strange and famous
salamander whose pond (and whose very existence) is a national landmark.
Roentgenologist Hoichi is chased and eventually hired by some
suspicious-looking guys to examine the animal and determine its
authenticity. What Hoichi doesn't know is that he's being used as a tool
in a long-lasting feud between the Kinjiro foundation members. And if
you think this sounds random already, it's only the beginning of the
Visually Tominaga's film is a little inconsistent. Some scenes look
really wonderful, with much attention being paid to the camera work,
composition and color. Other scenes look a bit plain and have a rather
rushed feel hanging over them. It's a shame because the potential is
definitely there and some scene are genuinely impressive. Maybe it was a
budget-related issue, maybe it's because this was Tominaga's first film
or maybe Tominaga just didn't care enough to keep it consistently
fresh. Whatever the case, I feel more could be done visually.
The soundtrack on the other hand is first class material. Ranging from
stylish jazz to experimental lofi electronic, the score is a constant
factor in undermining any chance of getting used to the film's quirky
feel. It's a constant challenge that lends the film a very unique
atmosphere and even though it's not always easy on the ears, it sure is a
lot of fun. People who've watched 100% Wool might have a pretty good
idea of what to expect.
The most recognizable actor of The Pavillion Salamandre is without a
doubt Jo Odagiri. The man is often compared to Tadanobu Asano (scruffy
appearance and a taste for off-key characters) and judging on his role
here the comparison is easy to justify. Odagiri has his own flair though
and uses it to great effect in this film. While Odagiri steals the
show, Kashii turns in more of a sleeper hit performance. Not as visible
or out there, but just as strong and powerful all the same. The rest of
the cast is up to par, with everyone obviously very conscious of the
type of film they're appearing in.
Halfway through Odagiri switches hides and transforms into some weird
Italian stereotype. Things get gradually weirder and the coherence might
be hard to find at times. While the film does wrap up nicely, you may
wonder how Tominaga managed to cram in so much nonsensical plot lines.
If you were planning on watching a captivating story with big emotional
scenes, warm feel-good comedy and overpowering dramatical elements,
better go somewhere else. The Pavillion Salamandre is an incoherent,
strange and chaotic mess that challenges your suspension of disbelieve
for its entire running time, but pays off in other areas.
It's definitely a difficult film to recommend. The film is virtually
impossible to compare with other films, it has a very distinct flavor
and doesn't really cater to any well-defined audience out there. But if
you like a film that dares to be different, shows a lot of vigor and
enthusiasm and manages to be quite funny and emotional through all the
chaos, this is no doubt a film that should be high on your checklist.
Great fun, unique and mesmerizing, but definitely not for everyone.
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