The 00s have quite a few hidden gems stacked away. Even though the focus on Japanese cinema was at its highest in decades, many good films still managed to slip through the cracks. Some of these cases are easier to explain than others, Sang-il Lee's Scrap Heaven [Sukurappu Hebun] is just one of those films that were incredibly unlucky I guess. I'm sure the film will resurface in due time thanks to the reputation its director built up over the years, but for now few people are aware of the film's existence. Which is a shame, as it really held its own the second time around.
Sang-il Lee would take his time to build up his career. He didn't start off with a bang like some others did, and he'd go back and forth between comedy and drama, which made it a little rougher to pinpoint his signature style. Scrap Heaven is the first of his films where he would showcase his grittier side, with a solid cast in place. It's a typical edgier early-to-mid 00s Japanese drama, somewhat nihilistic, with an odd sense of humor and a pleasant punk aesthetic. It had all the markings of a cult hit in the making, but somehow it never landed in the right people's hands.
Scrap Heaven is a film where the plot is heavily influenced by the (sometimes) random decisions its protagonists make. The premise is a little outlandish, but what happens from there on out is a direct result of the spur-of-the-moment inspiration that drives the lead character. It adds a level of unpredictability I really appreciate, as you never quite know what direction the film will go in next (a rare quality you don't experience all that often). People looking for a clear point of view or steadfast progression may be put off by this more liberated narrative structure though.
Three people find themselves at the mercy of a desperate man when they take home the bus one night. The man holds a gun and is threatening to kill them. They manage to get out of there alive, but the event lingers and the two of them get back together a couple of weeks later. They decide to cause a little chaos to shake up a dormant society. Operating from a toilet stall, they take on missions from people who seek justice where legal options don't hack it. The first few assignments go well, but then a disparity starts to develop between the two.
It's nice to see Sang-il Lee make a real effort stylistically. It's something I missed in the older films I watched of him, and even though Lee doesn't do anything that original here (it's mostly what you'd expect a grittier mid-00s Japanese drama to look like), the film has a rather pleasant look. Not exactly slick or pretty, but a bit darker and grittier, in line with the vibe of Scrap Heaven. There are a handful of standout scenes and memorable shots, the framing also deserves a special mention, making it somewhat of a landmark in his oeuvre.
The soundtrack is even more outspoken. Of course, there is some token J-Rock, that's a given when doing a more punk-style film, but Lee doesn't confine himself to a single genre. There are also some surprising touches of hip/trip-hop and electronic to be found in the score. It's simple (but for a Japanese drama, relatively bold) choices like these that make a big impact and give the film some extra personality. The score by itself probably isn't all that remarkable, but it is used appropriately and it did leave a strong impression. Mission accomplished in other words.
The cast is one of the film's biggest assets. Joe Odagiri is always a delight, he really lands a character that suits him and even though he can be a bit much, he never takes it too far. Next to him, he finds Ryo Kase and Chiaki Kuriyama, the latter in a smaller but not less notable part. Three powerhouses who really hold their own and can elevate a film all by themselves. Put them together and things begin to sparkle. With actors like Akira Emoto and Yoshiyuki Morishita added in secondary parts, you have a very strong cast that knows how to elevate a film.
It takes a while for the film to reveal its true face, and even then it keeps its cards close to its chest, remaining quite vague about which path it will follow. That's not to say the plot is messy or the film lacks a clear focus, it's just that the lead character is somewhat of a loose canon who can pull the film in a different direction at any time. Lee keeps the structure quite neat and easy to follow, but in the end, that narrative/structural uncertainty is an important part of the experience. It underlines the punk/anything-goes vibe, and that's really the core appeal of this film.
Scrap Heaven is the film where Sang-il Lee truly flexes his muscles for the first time. With a splendid cast, stylish cinematography, a cool score, and some interesting thematic strands he delivers a memorable and accomplished film. On top of that, he developed the foundation of what would become his signature style, a style he would further explore and that would bring him critical success later on. Scrap Heaven is not a film for everyone, but if you like the grittier, somewhat punky, and nihilistic Japanese dramas of the early 00s, then this is an easy recommendation. Like always, actually finding (a decent copy of) the film is the trickiest part.