“You can’t judge an independent film by the same standards as a studio movie.” I remember hearing that line in a conversation about reviewing film-festival movies a few years back. There’s truth to this sentiment. A traditional Hollywood movie tries to adhere to a very strict formula; there’s very little deviation from a clearly established storytelling structure.
Film festival fare is often something different. There are films that mirror more traditional filmmaking and do it really well (like “Nina Forever”—see page 25), and there are movies that experiment with the craft and push the envelope. Then there are those movies that leave audiences slack-jawed and every so often asking, “What the fuck am I watching?”—which aptly describes “TAG.” And I do not say that as a criticism—far from it.
“TAG” is a polarizing rollercoaster of a movie. It’s a visceral, sensory overload—a bloody, over-the-top, live-action cartoon that takes off running from the start and sprints to the finish line.
Mitsuko is a high-school student riding on a bus with her fellow classmates. A violent wind kicks up and tears the bus in half, killing everyone onboard except Mitsuko. Covered in blood, surrounded by 40 bifurcated bodies, she flees into the wilderness to try and stay one step ahead of the wind. She cleans herself up and heads back to civilization, only to find her classmates at school seemingly unharmed.
Was it a bad dream? The product of an overactive imagination? Mental illness? The movie settles down for a few minutes to introduce us to Mitsuko’s friends before once again devolving into insanity. This pattern continues for most of the movie, as Mitsuko jumps from reality to surreality with greater frequency. As her reality changes, so does the actress portraying her. At first she’s a private school student. Then a bride. Then a runner in a marathon. Just when we think we’re getting a handle on things, the board gets flipped and the pieces are rearranged.
For some movies, this kind of disconcerting shift would be a liability. “TAG,” however, is a movie dependent on forward momentum. Like a shark, it would die if it stopped moving.
Eventually, the movie pumps the brakes and provides us with an explanation for the craziness we have witnessed. I was surprised how effective it was. Sometimes I watch a film like “TAG” and expect little logic to the resolution. Yet, there’s a lot of emotion in the movie’s final moments. Writer/director Sion Sono accomplishes a great deal in “TAG.” This movie could easily be written off as exploitation cinema, but Sono has crafted a main character that is surprisingly human and well played by all three actresses who portray her: Reina Triendl, Mariko Shinoda and Erina Mano.
I can’t recall ever seeing a movie like “TAG.” It’s brutal and strange and senseless in the best possible way, like a weird, bastard love child of Takashi Miike and Gaspar Noé. For those who are willing to take this savage ride, it’s well worth the price of admission. Some people might not be able to handle the bumps and frequent narrative jack-knife turns, but for me, it was mesmerizing.