TIFF 2019: First Love – movie review

First Love. Image credit: Courtesy of TIFF

For the first time I’ve been granted press accreditation for the Toronto International Film Festival®, recognised as one of the largest and most prestigious film festivals in the world. So, I had the opportunity to watch and review a bunch of movies. This is my review of First Love (Japan, Takashi Miike, action/comedy/crime/romance; original title: Hatsukoi).

After a few departures into sci-fi (Terraformars), supernatural drama (Laplace’s Witch) and samurai action (Blade of the Immortal), legendary filmmaker Takashi Miike goes back to his “first love”: a yakuza-centred film that combines different sub-genres and marks the director’s return to ultra-violent, gory cinema.

Set over one night in Tokyo, First Love follows Leo (Masataka Kubota), a young boxer down on his luck as he meets his ‘first love’ Monica (Sakurako Konishi), a call-girl and an addict but still innocent and naïve. Little does Leo know, Monica is unwittingly caught up in a drug-smuggling scheme, and the two are pursued through the night by a corrupt cop, a yakuza member, his nemesis, and a female assassin sent by the Chinese Triads.

Continue reading and check my final grade below… 

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For First Love, Miike worked on a script written by Masaru Nakamura for the first time since The Bird People in China, a film that shows how much the Japanese director can modify his style to serve the story. In fact, First Love is one of the most accomplished works in the entire Miike’s catalogue, which now includes over 100 movies (102, to be precise!).

This is a film that incorporates the insane violence of Ichi the Killer (2001) with the weirdness of Gozu (2003), adding an extra-layer of romance that truly elevates First Love to the status of genre-bending, future cult-classic movie.

First Love - Image credit, courtesy of TIFF
First Love. Image credit: Courtesy of TIFF

Unlike most of Miike’s work, First Love is truly a wild ride with no stops: although I’m a big fan of Miike, it’s undeniable that most of his films suffer from pacing issues, with exhilarating sequences being intertwined with somewhat longwinded parts. His latest movie, however, fixes this problem entirely: First Love is incredibly fast-paced and entertaining throughout, benefitting from a climactic sequence of events that makes the film start fast and end even faster. The very short runtime for Japanese standards – this movie is only 108 minutes long – feels like the blink of an eye, with no dull nor unnecessary moments. This, also, enhanced the re-watchability of the film, which you will want to watch all over again as soon as the end credits start rolling.

The way First Love manages to seamlessly combine scenes with different tones is matched by the mature and astounding blend of genres: this is a film that handles both hilarious comedy and gut-wrenching violence at the same time; it combines scary sequences with quirky fight scenes; it switches from perfectly choreographed shootings to sweet and melancholy romantic moments.

On top of that, First Love is truly stylised in a way that borrows a lot from Miike’s previous work as well as great Japanese films in the horror, action and crime genres. However, it never feels derivative nor uninspired: on the contrary, First Love comes off as unique, as every borrowed element is transformed to become something else, just like it happens in most Tarantino’s movies.

Mainly, First Love is an anxiety-inducing, exhilarating watching experience that won’t allow you to catch your breath for even one second. However, in the midst of brutal and gory entertainment, First Love guides the audience through a vast range of emotions: it’s touching and romantic, it’s depressing and enraging, it’s exciting and adrenaline-fuelled, it’s scary and hard to watch.

Every single fan of Miike will have a blast watching First Love, but also gore-hounds, fanatics of Japanese cinema and Tarantino fans will most likely really love this film. Aside from a couple of editing choices and a few questionable lines, this truly is a nearly-flawless picture.

First Love                                           9/10

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