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Review © Mandi Apple, 2006.

Directed by Satoshi Isaka, 1996, 73 mins, starring Tadanobu Asano, Unno Keiko and Shirai Akira.

Released in 1996, pre-dating the J-horror boom by a couple of years, Focus is a relatively low-budget and low-profile mockumentary directed by Satoshi Isaka and starring Tadanobu Asano. Now, Asano is truly one of the finest actors in cinema today: his range and repertoire is almost limitless. There is no personality he cannot convey credibly, no emotion he cannot evoke, and all this while being pretty much the coolest person in the entire universe. However, even his august and lordly presence cannot save this rubbish snoozefest.

Focus is a movie which bears far more resemblance in both style and content to Western pieces like The Blair Witch Project than to the usual Asian horror standby, Ring. But unlike Blair Witch, whereby the tension of the movie depended on the viewer making an emotional connection with the characters and understanding the dynamic of the group as a whole, the few characters featured in Focus are so badly sketched and poorly developed that it would be nigh on impossible to care less if one of them suddenly spontaneously exploded without warning.

Naturally, being a cinema-vérité style piece, Focus looks pretty awful. Very realistic, but pretty awful. Forget being shot on DV camera: this looks like it was actually shot on wax cylinder. Underwater. In addition to the Shunkyvision shakycam horridness of the visuals, to be frank at least three-quarters of the film is almost excruciatingly dull. Isaka is obviously setting the scene for the latter section of the movie, but I do feel he could have done it more effectively over a shorter span of time. OK, so it's obviously more true to reality to watch the camerawoman set up the same shot of the main protagonist Kanemura walk across the road five times in a row, but it does not make for a scintillating viewing experience. 73 minutes have rarely felt so long.

Synopsis

"You'll do anything, won't you? All you care about is getting great TV. You won't use me to entertain the folks."

A group of professional TV news item/documentary makers is interviewing a young man named Kanemura (Tadanobu Asano) about his illegal and somewhat unethical hobby of 'scanning' - using a radio device to tune into police radio, mobile phone signals, carphones and the like. Kanemura wishes to remain anonymous for obvious reasons, but the TV crew are more than a bit dodgy - and to be honest, so is Kanemura. It's fairly self-evident that his otaku tendencies are definitely on the pervy side when it comes to listening in on people's private worlds, and the slant of the documentary is clearly negatively weighted against him.

However it's becoming more and more obvious that this news item is a total set-up against Kanemura. Far from keeping his identity and whereabouts a secret, the camera crew are even doing location shots outside his house, to illustrate his anecdote about how a girl who lives opposite him has had her apartment bugged. Not only that, they're trying to get him to entrap himself by knocking on her door to see if his receiver will pick it up.

Naturally, by this point, Kanemura is becoming very anxious about protecting his anonymity, so he refuses to cooperate. Instead, he takes the presenter, Iwai (Shirai Akira), and a camerawoman, Yoko (Unno Keiko), to his car, which is also set up for the express purpose of scanning. He's so obsessed that he even has a high-powered scanner on his dashboard so he can pick up carphone signals wherever he is.

It's about this point that all the occupants of the car bear witness to a carphone conversation which involves a gun hidden in a coin locker, and a flight to Manila . It would seem to point to the perpetrators of a homicide having a chat about their getaway plan. They arrange to meet by a department store near Shinjuku station and to hide the key to the coin locker in a phone booth there. Obviously this is a big deal, and the TV crew think they're on the trail of a really big scoop here. But what kind of trouble and danger are they getting themselves mixed up in? Is this a real criminal lead, or just someone's crappy idea of a joke?

The presenter is so keen to promote his show - and massage his own massive ego - that he is quite willing to drag his understandably reluctant team down with him. So when he reaches the phone booth in question and finds a numbered key, just as the phone call described, it's obvious that at that exact moment, they have all passed the point of no return and will have to follow this story through to the bitter end. But what happens next comes as a shock to them all and sets an entirely different chain of events in motion.

Whilst it's pretty obvious that Isaka is setting out to make all kinds of valid and worthy comments about the place of media (and especially investigative journalism), invasion of privacy and media manipulation in our society, and how 99 times out of 100 journalists are quite willing to jettison "unimportant" factors like ethics, scruples and even self-preservation in order to get the best and most sensational stories, there are two problems with this statement.

Firstly, most people in the street are quite aware that news hacks are among the most corrupt and immoral people on earth, so telling us that journos are scumbags is not entirely newsworthy in itself. The only sentient beings who don't already know that are space plankton living under a rock on the frozen wastes of Neptune and who don't have cable TV. The irony of the journos trying to get on their moral high horse over the freakish, thoroughly perverted scanner otaku invading the privacy of ordinary people was not lost on me, but it wasn't exactly an earth-shattering revelation, as was the subtle-as-a-sledgehammer point that the media is capable of being judge, jury and executioner in one fell swoop. Talk about stating the very, very, very bleeding obvious ;-)

Secondly, Focus is not the best vehicle for the delivery of that grand message. Put simply, it's pretty frustrating and boring. It also looks bloody terrible, to the point where I despaired of being able to take a single screenshot for this review. Its night-vision-style shakycam sequences are so ghastly on the eyeballs that at times I actually felt nauseous. When the presenter character opened a box three times in a row with the same lame TV-show-type comments repeated again and again, I wanted to kick the TV screen in out of sheer frustration. And with its painstaking attention to accurate detail of the real-life workings of a TV documentary crew, the only people to whom the piece could conceivably be of any interest are diehard Asano fans, or filmmakers themselves.

By the end segment when the realism drops out and the drama takes over for the dénouement of the last half-hour, the average viewer will have stopped caring a good fifteen minutes or so beforehand, unless they have the patience of a veritable saint. In that last half-hour, there are certainly scenes which are both deeply disturbing and incredibly unpleasant to watch, but that doesn't exactly add to the entertainment value - or even the overall watchability of the piece. And I for one felt cheated that the vérité approach was suddenly dropped - to the extent of even adding incidental music and arty fading shots. If you're going to go to all the trouble of making something look dreadful in the name of realism, at least have the courage of your convictions and stick it out till the end.

Whilst Focus has much in common with the aforementioned Blair Witch Project, and actually is far closer in feel and style to GH Evans' extraordinary and brilliant comment on the voyeurism of the media, Footsteps, Focus doesn't even qualify to be in the same league as those two movies. It doesn't even have the balls-to-the-wall gutsiness of Natural Born Killers, for heaven's sake! ;-) Give this one a miss unless you really actively enjoy pseud-ish, dirge-like, depressing docu-dramas.

Snowblood Apple Rating for this film:
Entertainment: 4/10
Repetitiveness: 10/10
Sex: -1/10, for the sheer 'orribleness of the last half hour
Gore: 2/10
Violence: 5/10
Repetitiveness: 10/10
Pros: Tadanobu Asano
Cons: Absolutely everything else
Repetitiveness: 10/10
Repetitiveness: I've just kicked in my TV. Oops ;-)

Films in a similar style: Blair Witch Project, Footsteps, Peeping Tom, Natural Born Killers, Crimewatch UK

*** Grim and unrewarding ***

Snowblood Apple Filmographies

Satoshi Isaka
Tadanobu Asano

Links

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rbTVEwbtGvM - Hurrah for YouTube! It even has trailers for the most obscure and crappy movies you can imagine...
http://www.midnighteye.com/reviews/focus.shtml - Tom Mes of Midnight Eye on the film. "First impressions and the assumptions derived from them are often shallow and false. A monster can dress like a man, but it is still a monster. And vice versa.", indeed.
http://128.146.173.254/Markus/Review/Films96/Focus.html - interesting review by Aaron Gerow
http://www.kfccinema.com/reviews/drama/focus/focus.html - KFCC give the film their usual, incisive once-over
http://www.fdk-berlin.de/forumarchiv/forum97/f092e.html - reprint of a contemporary review from The Japan Times by Mark Schilling

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