Fans of the more experimental side of Asian cinema will likely be more embracing of Shugo Fujii's Frantic than I, its unique rhythms and bewildering narrative likely to lose some folks while enchanting quite a few others. If you're familiar with Fujii's work, then you likely at least have an idea of what to expect. If you're not, then you're likely in for something entirely unique.
Based on Fujii's own stage play, Frantic begins in a theater in Japan with a ragtag ensemble of actors who seem to carry both acating and production roles preparing for what they hope to be their greatest break yet in front of a nearly packed house and, rumor has it, even a film producer. Flashing back, which happens quite often throughout Frantic, introduces us to the key players and events leading up to this night.
Sho (Takahiro Ochi) is a wannabe actor with a recent casting session failure. Tatsu (Toshiki Kudo) spends his time working in a convenience store trying to impress a female co-worker, however, he aspires to acting while holding completely sway over Yasu (Rei Yamashita). Hama is an intriguing character, easily influenced and willing to go just about anywhere those around him go.
Throw into the mix the great lengths this ensemble will go to in an effort to fund their project and you have the makings for a deliriously weird and off-kilter film in which it's never quite clear where Fujii is going with it all and the sprawling narrative both exhausts and exhilarates. As the play begins, it's abundantly clear early on that things aren't going as planned and it's not much longer before the protagonists begin to show signs of snapping.
Or do they?
A thriller in the truest sense, Frantic possesses multiple layers throughout with an emotional resonance that keeps you watching even if the film's flashbacks become a tad tiresome and the overall film feels a bit long. There's an overwhelming sense of desire that radiates throughout Frantic, a desire for success or for love or for something resembling actual connection. Ultimately, it's the desire to live into one's dreams whatever those dreams may be.
Eventually, it appears that the stress of on-stage failure takes its toll leading to what appears to be a hostage situation inside the theater.
Yes, it sounds weird. You have to watch it to believe it.
Frantic spirals into a saturated, atmospheric paranoia where truth is difficult to discern and where absurdity rules the day. Fujii's own lensing helps to compensate for the film's obviously lower budget, not a particularly bad thing but you can't help but wish Fujii would have had a larger budget to really bring this cinematic beast to life. There's an undeniable tension that occasionally suffocates, a staging of some of the acts of violence that had me thinking of A Clockwork Orange on more than one occasion.
The ensemble cast is all game here, though both Ochi and Kudo are the most impressive given they pretty much run the full spectrum of the cinematic landscape. It's almost ridiculous how broad their performances become and yet they also manage to feel realistic and more than a little frightening.
At just over 110 minutes, Frantic starts to wear out its welcome and I'll confess I found the flashback sequences more than a little tiresome and occasionally even unnecessary. They also made it difficult to really get fully immersed in the film's more dramatic scenes, a disappointing lack as a tighter, slightly more efficient film would have likely really amped up the suspense and thrills.
Picked up by TMA Releasing and Bayview Entertainment for a February streaming release to be followed by a future DVD release, Frantic will likely prove satisfying for fans of the experimental side of Asian cinema or fans of the likes of Sion Sono.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic