Back in 2000 Japanese cinema started to boom. In the wake of Kitano's Hana-bi young and upcoming directors were given a chance to bring their vision to the screen. Actor/director/writer Kazushi Watanabe jumped at the opportunity and was able to expand his earlier short film to a full-length feature. The result was 19, a somewhat strange, hard to coin yet sublime and gripping little film that managed to seduce me all over again.
Kazushi Watanabe's 19 is part of that rare breed of film that leaves you with good memories, but not so much of the film itself. What remains afterwards is simply the memory of the memory. I remembered 19 as a rather special, unique film, but I'd completely forgotten why exactly that was. It kind of messed up my expectations when I wanted to see it again. Either it would turn out fine and I could relive the film as if I was watching it for the first time, or it would bomb and I'd have to question my former self's taste in films.
Lucky for me Watanabe's first turned out to be as special as I remembered it to be. It's clear that 19 owes quite a lot to the cinema of Kitano (Sonatine in particular springs to mind), but made as if the film was part of the more recent slow cinema movement. It's a strange fusion of genre cinema and arthouse, not surprisingly the small niche I tend to favor. That makes it a little harder to recommend blindly, but if you're the adventurous type then 19 shouldn't pose too much of a challenge.
Plotwise expectations are better kept low. Not because the plot fails to engage, but there just isn't much there. A trio of thugs come across a student (Usami) and they decide to take the boy with them. It's not exactly a hostage situation and the reason why Usami is forced to go with them is kept a mystery, but it's clear that he has little say in the proceedings. They drive around, raise hell wherever they come but don't seem to have any specific goal in mind. And so the film becomes a road movie with no clear destination or point.
Visually 19 is pretty interesting. It looks a little like a high-contrast black & white film, only shot with washed-out colors. There's lots of grain, milky colors and an abundance of overexposed imagery. The effect is gritty and ethereal at the same time, giving the film an otherworldly quality even though the locations themselves may be a little her plain. Don't expect slick and fine-tuned cinematography though, but for this type of film the style works wonders and 19 wears its indie look with pride.
The soundtrack is equally gritty. Raw and distorted guitars wail in the background, often in jazz-like constructions. It's a very definite, recognizable sound that gives the film quite a lot of extra flair. Together with the visuals it creates a feeling of gravity and mystery, an atmosphere that somehow grounds the film. It's not the kind of music I would listen to outside the context of this film, then again I feel that's often one of the defining elements of a good soundtrack.
What the cast lacks in acting talent, they make up for in raw flair. Kazushi Watanabe in particular makes an awesome thug, taking on the role of an intriguing yet difficult to grasp (low-ranking) criminal. His actions and motivations are often murky, but his character doesn't suffer from it, on the contrary even. His almost impenetrable facade makes it easier to understand why his victims remain so passive under his command. The rest of the cast performs well, although I assume that's mostly because there's a lot of posing going on and minimal dialogue for them to mess up.
You could say that 19 is more about the journey then it is about the destination, but I'm not even sure that is true as the journey itself isn't all that exciting either. Still, the trip has an incredible impact on the lead character and observing that change is what kept me glued to the screen. The ending is also perfect in that sense, but might be a little hard to swallow if you don't really relate to the film by that point. The film doesn't come to a neat, all-encompassing conclusion, but still feels finished and complete.
Even though its appeal might be limited to a rather small group of film fans, I still feel 19 is undervalued (and incredibly underwatched). Chances are that it will disappoint some people, others might be left clueless and wondering what they have just watched, but it's a unique film that at least deserves the benefit of the doubt. 19 is rich in atmosphere, offers a novel take on the road trip genre and the film left me wishing there were more films like this. Watanabe's 19 is a little diamond in the rough and I'm pretty glad that I'm able to cherish it.