MFF 2019: We Are Little Zombies – movie review

We Are Little Zombies. Image credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

For the first time, I’ve been granted press accreditation for the Milano Film Festival – which is becoming one of the most prestigious European film festivals. With a selection of 27 feature-length films and over 41 short movies, the main theme of this year’s MFF is “coming-of-age” stories, told in every kind of genre you can think of: on this website, you’ll find reviews of every horror-related film at the festival, plus a few articles on other movies that you’ll find in the Beyond Horror section of the website. This is my review of We Are Little Zombies (Makoto Nagahisa, Japan, comedy/drama/musical).

Written, directed and scored by Makoto Nagahisa, at his directorial debut, We Are Little Zombies is an experimental picture that, through retro videogame-like aesthetics, revolvers around bond formed by four orphans who met at a crematorium where their parents are being turned to ash and the respective funerals are being held. Soon they decide to turn their anger, grief or loss into expression by forming a punk/rock/pop band: they gain notoriety and money, but once again they feel like they’ve lost freedom, so their quest for a new kind of life starts again.

Continue reading and check my final grade below… 

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Despite the dense plot and multi-layered themes confronted in the film, what takes central stage in We Are Little Zombies is the visual presentation and the unprecedented style of filmmaking. Inspired by 80s and 90s retro-gaming, Makoto Nagahisa makes his debut feature a true treat to the eyes: the framing and shot composition aims to recreate the feel of old Nintendo games, where the characters are filmed in “bird’s eye” fashion, with the camera often placed on a drone, as they walk in straight lines following the “safe spots” of the environment they’re in. The score, either an updated version of Super Mario or a modernised classical bit of music, is something odd-sounding but very catchy and memorable at the same time.

The filmmaker experimented a lot with the aspect ratio as well, which changes dramatically between two different shots and, sometimes, switches from square to 5:4 (to mimic the one that was used for old computers) to the traditional 16:9 within the same sequences. Whilst this directorial choice can feel odd in some instances (Chris Nolan does that all the time, because he shoots action scenes in IMAX cameras), here it fits perfectly the uncompromising and bonkers tone of the visuals. By the same token, the frenetic and violent editing used in this film can be very off-putting, but it serves the manga-like presentation, something that this director was also going for.

Throughout the 2-hour-long runtime, however, We Are Little Zombies lack consistency in terms of visuals. Impressively enough, this picture manages to feel like an attack at the senses throughout but, after the kids’ band is dismantled, the videogame logical/atmosphere gets also lost in favour of different techniques. This might be a conscious choice to represent a transition in their lives, but it’s very jarring for the viewer to watch.

In the same way, the narrative structure of this film – divided in 14 different levels or stages – isn’t fully embraced: it’s as though Nagahisa wanted to create a new way of storytelling (ignoring the traditional 3-act structure) but only ended up disguising it beneath a bombastic presentation. In fact, the story follows the traditional coming-of-age template – with highs and lows – despite the somewhat gimmicky division of the movie in 14 “acts” (well, levels).

With this kind of ultra-experimental pictures that refuse and deconstruct traditional filmmaking, the issue is that the viewer’s eyes and mind aren’t ready to handle the film for longer than a certain time: We Are Little Zombies would’ve been perfect, for me, if it was 30 or 40 minutes shorter, a criticism I already voiced when speaking about Gaspar Noe’s Enter The Void.

This is a film that, despite its exhilarating presentation, truly makes quite a few poignant statements about Japan, youth, expectations, parenthood, loneliness and so on. Most of these aren’t fully impactful from a Western perspective, but they still manage to make the story beyond the visuals captivating.

In conclusion, We Are Little Zombies is a ground-breaking and memorable film that feels different from any other movie made before it. However, the runtime isn’t fully earned and the inconsistencies in the movie’s tone and style make it really hard to re-watch, in my opinion. Assuming that this film will ever be available for most audience members, watch it only if you want to see how creative and anti-mainstream a movie can truly be.

We Are Little Zombies                                 6/10

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