She's Just A Shadow

*****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

She's Just A Shadow
"If you've lived on the edge this is a world you'll recognise and yet Sherman captures that beauty that's almost impossible to see again from the outside, after sobering up." | Photo: Breaking Glass Pictures

Reportedly, Adam Sherman conceived this singular film after asking himself this question: what would happen if Dudley Do-Right didn't show up on time?

In the opening scenes, a naked young woman is taken from the boot of a car and tied to the railway tracks by a police officer who masturbates over her struggling body before filming her being hit by a train. We're already further abstracted from the nefarious deeds of Snidely Whiplash, harking back to a frantic Gloria Swanson in Teddy At Full Throttle and a cinematic iconography that has lingered in the public imagination ever since, despite there being very few examples of it in film. It's an obsession for this particular man, who puts his snuff films online and uses ever more elaborate kinbaku techniques to position his victims. Spying on them beforehand, he seems to imagine that because they're sex workers they deserve their fate and no-one will really care. But he's wrong.

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Sherman's heady brew of hedonistic sex, extreme violence, drugs, alcohol, fetishism and visual excess is a beautifully crafted ensemble piece that draws viewers into a world, a community, inviting us to connect not so much with individuals as with the relationships between them. It's a notoriously difficult kind of filmmaking which requires tremendous confidence and vision to pull off as well as this. Although no-one could deny that much of the film's appeal is exploitative, it uses this to induce sympathy with people whose lives are lived on the margins and who usually appear in mainstream film purely as decoration or props for some otherwise clean-cut hero's journey, murdered as often as they are here but never mourned. It invites us to become part of their communities, to see the world as they do - not just to see their humanity but to share it. And it does so without the least hint of apologism.

There are gangsters here as well as sex workers. The serial killer's works are not the only bloody murders on display. Tensions between gangs are simmering on the streets of Tokyo. At the centre of it is the fierce and strikingly beautiful madam Irene (Tao Okamoto), descendent of a family of poisoners, whose turbulent relationship with her gang boss lover is forever tainted by his jealous obsession regarding her past friendship with his rival. The killer seems to have a particular obsession with her but keeps his distance, perhaps recognising the danger she represents, whilst she gradually makes the moves and builds the necessary confidence to control her own life as she has long controlled those of others.

In contrast to Irene's sleek, dark beauty, we encounter a parade of spectacularly garbed Harajuku-style hookers, blending kinderwhore with fruits and taking Lolita fashion to the point where one would think few customers could afford their services for as long as it would take to unwrap them. They're playful and joyous in a way that succeeds in bringing real warmth to the story, yet the cocaine and pills, vodka and ice cream that keep them that way are never far out of sight, and we do see the hangovers as well. Two of them are in love with pretty boy gangster Gaven (played by punk band Loka's Kihiro, whose body is exploited by the camera every bit as much as those of his female co-stars), an arrangement that works just fine until he tells each of them, separately, that he's going to take her away from all this, sparking vicious jealousy. It's a junkie's promise anyway. it's hard to believe that he'll make good on it. He's far too easily distracted by short term relief, whisky, guns, pretty clothes, the shiny naked arse of a woman crawling to the toilet because she's forgotten how to walk.

This is a world that doesn't need a serial killer to trigger collapse, but whether you're drawn to Gaven's protracted romantic self-destruction of Irene's steely survival arc, the result is compelling - beguiling, even. Every frame is filled up with the glamour of the doomed. Beautiful bodies intertwine in a tangle of sequins, masks, paint, camera equipment and empty bottles. A woman clothed in sushi stops giggling for just long enough to take a bite. A laptop is used to deliver a beating. Fights segue into sex and back again without any suggestion that consent has been withdrawn. David Newbert's lush cinematography lends sensuality to the simplest of scenes - and yet nothing is really simple when even dinner with one's parents could end in death.

If you've lived on the edge this is a world you'll recognise and yet Sherman captures that beauty that's almost impossible to see again from the outside, after sobering up. He delivers it all with such excess that the promise seems real again, even when we're face to face with the brutality of it. Whether or not one is seduced by the sensual appeal of it all, it's impossible to deny that this is a cinematic masterpiece. As one gorgeous creature after another passes in front of Sherman's camera and those of his characters, doomed to become an afterthought, a mere impression of a person where humanity might have been, the awfulness of mortality is briefly eclipsed by something transcendent - and wasn't that always the point?

Reviewed on: 16 Jul 2019
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She's Just A Shadow packshot
A group of Japanese sex workers are stalked by a serial killer while their bosses try to resolve conflicts of their own.

Director: Adam Sherman

Writer: Adam Sherman

Starring: Tao Okamoto, Haruka Abe, Kihiro, Kentez Asaka, Mercedes Maxwell

Year: 2019

Runtime: 118 minutes

Country: US

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