By Jeremy Carr.
Nearly everyone encountered expresses some sort of erratic behavior, which does give the film a sense of genuine spontaneity and hysterical possibility.”
There is a popular social media trend where someone posts a seemingly innocuous video in which something unexpected then occurs. This is usually accompanied by a phrase like, “Whatever you think is going to happen, you’re wrong.” The same sentiment could also be applied – on an almost scene-by-scene basis – to What’s Up Connection, an unpredictable 1990 film produced, directed, and co-written (with Isamu Uno) by Masashi Yamamoto.
Yamamoto appears to acknowledge the incoming variability of What’s Up Connection by opening with shots of tranquil waters and early morning shades of somber blue. But from there, as the picture moves in closer to the dilapidated fishing village of Po Toi O, the sleepy serenity is broken by a chaotic breakfast in the which the film’s central family is introduced. Most prominently, and crucially as far as What’s Up Connection’s storyline is concerned, there is Chi Gau Shin (Tse Wai Kit), a teenager whose name, he says, means “Batshit Crazy,” a moniker he certainly lives up to. He is “destined for the good life,” in his view, and soon he wins a trip to Japan. For a time, this stroke of good fortune is the primary narrative focus, as Gau Shin meets up with a sweet and overwhelmed tour guide and the two embark on a sightseeing sojourn. There is a slight language barrier, previewing the film’s globalist discourse (which it gradually gets to in a more overt manner), and some considerable fun is had at the expense of Gau Shin as he tries to make sense of the strange, hyperactive setting with unfamiliar food, customs, and crime. Eventually, though, back in China, Gau Shin’s family is fleshed out and a further development occurs when a wealthy Japanese businessman sets his shady sights on their ramshackle village, with the intent of demolishing it and developing a grand corporate site.
Now, there is much else happening between all this, from elements of travelogue comedy in Japan – a sundry arrangement of farcical conduct, cramped quarters, and knock-off theme parks – to the dual scheming of Gau Shin and his family and the budding Japanese industrialists. But when or how What’s Up Connection will proceed from one point of emphasis to the next is never certain. Accordingly, Yamamoto adopts a heady, stylistic brew of deadpan, static shots (best when observing some of the more outlandish interactions), vibrant colors and lighting, flat pans around interior settings, freeze-frames, slow-motion, balanced compositions, and sudden montage sequences that resemble a minimalist music video of the era. Yamamoto has said that every time he visited Hong Kong, it made him want to make films, and while What’s Up Connection is not directed exclusively at that particular metropolis, he surely displays a knack for scenic renderings, highlighting the seedy side of a bustling city, the slums, and the village (credit as well to cinematographer Masamitsu Tamai for imagery of constant appeal).
Frankly, though, the film is all over the place, and nearly everyone encountered expresses some sort of erratic behavior, which does give the film a sense of genuine spontaneity and hysterical possibility. There are direct-to-camera addresses and about 40 minutes in, a title card informs the viewer that a female stowaway will now be played by both a man and a woman. The tone of What’s Up Connection thus oscillates wildly between the subdued and the manic, and these peaks and valleys are generally reflected in the film’s overall engagement. As the familial strife increases then settles, as the plot moves ahead then halts, and as characters come and go on a whim, the film doesn’t always succeed in establishing a progressive headway. And yet, whatever happens, it is almost always of interest, if for no other reason than the curiosity of what could possibly happen next.
With that said, there is also more to What’s Up Connection than what figures amongst the absurdity. There are glimpses of a surface, popular prosperity, but ever so subtly, Yamamoto encourages us to look closer. Despite the bright lights and tourist attractions, there is a deeply-realized social discord. The disparity is centered on Gau Shin and his family, but it extends to a transnational portrait of contemporary evolution and disconnection, of expectations and disappointments. The film’s silliness can often cloud its serious intent, but it’s there, albeit with a comic consciousness. And ultimately, a perceptive expression of communal struggle, solidarity, and resilience not only rises to the surface, but proves to be quite poignant.
Yamamoto hasn’t had the most prolific career since his debut, Sei terorizumu, in 1980, and he’s hardly a household name, at least outside Japan. Still, as press notes for What’s Up Connection point out, his 1983 film Carnival in the Night was “the first independent Japanese film to be officially invited to screen at both the Cannes International Film Festival’s Critics’ Week and the Berlin Film Festival’s Young Forum.” And Robinson’s Garden, his 1987 film and possibly his most famous alongside What’s Up Connection, also won the Zitty Award at Berlinale and earned him the Directors Guild of Japan’s New Directors Award.
In any case, and if What’s Up Connection is a solid indication (uneven though it may be), Yamamoto’s is a body of work deserving attention, especially if it contains a similarly original collage of the ambitious, ironic, and audacious.
Jeremy Carr is a Contributing Editor at Film International and teaches film studies at Arizona State University. He writes for the publications Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI/Notebook, Cinema Retro, Vague Visages, The Retro Set, The Moving Image, Diabolique Magazine and Fandor. He is the author of Repulsion (1965) from Auteur Publishing and a contributor to the collections ReFocus: The Films of Elaine May, from Edinburgh University Press, and David Fincher’s Zodiac: Cinema of Investigation and (Mis)Interpretation, from Fairleigh Dickinson University Press (December 2021).