If you were to come up with a working cinematic definition of “pleasant surprise,” you could hardly do much better than Shinichiro Ueda’s One Cut of the Dead. Ueda’s breezily inventive, micro-budget zombie comedy parlayed positive word of mouth to make back its budget more than 1000 times over (without the benefit of a proper American theatrical release) and, astonishingly, closed out 2019 as Rotten Tomatoes’ highest-rated movie of the year. The secret is that, beyond its stylistic trickery (including both a 40-minute-long take and a mid-film hairpin plot twist), it’s just really damn charming. Through its entire running time, Ueda maintains both a manic anything-goes energy and a genuine affection for his characters, even as he throws them into increasingly more ludicrous situations. By any estimation, One Cut announced Ueda as a major new talent (to say nothing of his profitability), which raised the inevitable question: what, with his newfound clout and goodwill, would he do for an encore?
Thankfully, unlike so many up-and-coming filmmakers, Ueda was not snapped up by the international Hollywood machine to conform to a generic franchise entry. On the contrary, Ueda’s new film, Special Actors, does exactly what a sophomore effort should. It takes everything that made One Cut special– its silly humor, its surprise twists, its infectiously happy-go-lucky attitude– and applies it to a more ambitious canvas. I’m not sure if Special Actors quite surpasses One Cut in terms of sheer likability, but I walked away with just as big and as goofy a smile on my face.
Special Actors stars Kazuto Osawa as Kazuto Ohno, an impossibly shy young loner whose dreams of becoming an actor are stymied by a nervous affliction which causes him, at the slightest provocation, to faint into his aggressor’s arms (this proves to be an even greater hindrance at his day job as a security guard). One night, Kazuto witnesses an apparent mugging, only to realize that the assailant is his younger brother, Hiroki (Hiroki Kono). Kazuto is further perplexed when Hiroki’s victim catches up with him, thanks him, and hands him a wad of bills. Hiroki, it turns out, has taken a job at a peculiar agency which sends actors into the wild to serve as real-life extras for desperate clients– say, a department store that wants to project an image of booming business, or a movie studio that needs to pack an audience with designated laughers (in Hiroki’s case, his client wanted to convince his girlfriend that he could defend her honor). The money’s good, and best of all, it gives Kazuto an opportunity to act outside the view of intimidating directors. He still needs his rubber boob stress ball to function (“A real one is out of my league,” he tells his therapist), but he’s making money, has new friends, and, on paper at least, he’s an actor.
The situation gains a wrinkle, however, when the Special Actors agency lands its tallest order yet: Yumi (Miyu Ogawa) is in danger of losing both her family inn and her sister to a sinister, new-agey cult. Kazuto and his friends are tasked with infiltrating the sect as fresh-faced recruits, driving them away from the inn, rescuing Yumi’s sister, and, if possible, expose them as the con artists they so clearly are. Brainwash-cults, of course, are a more daunting opponent than lazy waitstaff or difficult boyfriends, but the Special Actors are adept at improvisation– but can even they keep a handle on the ensuing chaos?
Special Actors is clearly a more ambitious undertaking than One Cut of the Dead; its story is more expansive, its cast of characters larger, and its set pieces more elaborate (even without the single-take bravado). But, crucially, it doesn’t lose its predecessor’s good-natured, let’s-put-on-a-show ethic. The actors– both the Special Actors of the movie and the real-life actors portraying them– seem to be having the time of their lives. There really aren’t any unlikable characters; as in One Cut, it’s hard not to pull for the protagonists to succeed, and even the cultists are more Snidely Whiplash than David Miscavige. It feels significant that both of Ueda’s films so far feature an amateurish yet indefatigable director. I’ve never seen an interview with Shinichiro Ueda, but I can’t imagine he’s much different.
Special attention should be cast on Osawa. As a character, Kazuto could easily have been realized as the sort of overly precious, quirky-for-quirky’s sake caricature that populated the Juno era. But Osawa imbues the character with such unwavering earnestness that you can’t help but root for him. Likewise, HIroki is driven by a genuine desire to help his brother overcome his anxiety, and the whole troupe is committed to rescuing Yumi’s sister. They’re all just so unfailingly good that, even at their most ridiculous, their enthusiasm is infectious.
Of course, the other aspect of One Cut’s success comes in its delirious, ever-shifting story. Special Actors doesn’t quite match it in terms of audacity, but it marches to a similarly off-beat rhythm. Ueda specializes in what might be termed “slow-burn” slapstick, spending the first half of his films slowly pulling back a trap that snaps shut in a sustained fit of comic mayhem. Special Actors is very funny throughout, particularly in the Scientological looniness of the Musubi cult (that’s Japanese for “Rice Ball,” incidentally), but the real fun comes as the actors put their plan into action. The troupe are of course gifted improvisers, and their in-house screenwriter has drafted treatments for every possible scenario; subsequently, as things spiral into seeming chaos, it’s often an open question how much control they have over the situation. The result is delightfully twisty and turny, right up to a big final twist which I truly did not see coming.
Does Special Actors surpass its predecessor? Not quite; at nearly two hours, it can’t quite sustain the furious pace of One Cut of the Dead, and none of its emotional beats quite match that film’s triumphant final shot. But like One Cut (as well as such other winning genre tales as Extra Ordinary, The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot, and TV’s Los Espookys), it creates a weird little world and fills it with sweet, funny characters. Ueda’s films are charming, hilarious, and like no one else’s, and, like his onscreen avatars, the joy he gets from them is palpable.
dir. Shinichiro Ueda
Canadian premiere at the Fantasia International Film Festival – follow our continuing coverage of the fest here!