Review: Liverleaf (NYAFF 2018)

by Matthew Hawkins

OMG, it’s time for the 17th New York Asian Film Festival! Cue the trailer…

That also means it’s time to populate this blog with reviews from the fest! I’ll be posting two posts a day, for the next few. And today’s pairing centers upon young women with one single thing in common: revenge. Though that’s where the similarities end…

When it comes to movies about high school kids maiming & murdering each other, no ones does it quite like the Japanese. And Liverleaf represents a new benchmark, worthy enough to be mentioned in the same breath as Battle Royale and World of Kanako (I actually believe Liverleaf is in some ways superior to both). Based on a cult hit manga, the story is simple enough: Nozaki’s the new girl from the big city, stuck in small town. Nozaki’s also the target of bullying by the popular kids in her class, all followers of Taeko.

The reason given for the aforementioned harassment is the third part of the love triangle; Nozaki (supposedly) stole Aiba… who’s quite the dreamy dude… away from Taeko, which the aforementioned devotees find absolutely outrageous. Despite the fact that their glorious leader doesn’t seem particularly interested in the guy, nor is she seemingly invested in torturing the other gal. At any rate, Nozaki’s parents are made painfully aware of the situation and suggest that their daughter spend the rest of the school year at home. So with no target of their ire in sight, they send a previous victim of theirs, Rumi, to somehow convince Nozaki to come back to class. Upon failing her mission, Rumi fears that she’ll return to being a target again, hence her adopting the “if you can’t beat them, join them” mentality, by suggesting that they kill Nozaki.

In the end, its Nozaki’s mom & dad who end up murdered, via arson; kid sister would have perished as well, but the dreamy Aiba risked his life to save hers. Almost immediately the popular kids start to panic, and for good reason. Cuz when Nozaki’s suspicions are confirmed, she immediately gets to work by seeking revenge. The level of violence on display is over the top, yet the quality of the performances are anything but, with nuanced characterizations that are practically foreign to the genre. The film truly hits its stride when we witness members of the guilty party who were not part of the first wave getting ready for impact. No one’s willing to go down without a fight, in particular the brainchild of the playing with fire idea, Rumi, who at this point has become totally unhinged. Then there’s the final boss, Taeko, who again seems curiously nonchalant about it all. Once more, the acting is sharp, as is the direction; the killer combo takes a premise that’s perhaps not the most original (supposedly the source material is nothing brilliant either) and makes it truly gripping.

I’ve said it before… with each & every New York Asian Film Festival round-up, in fact… so I’m saying it again: movies from Japan are either a massive disappointment or shockingly pleasurable. There’s no in-between. Also, if you expect one thing, you often get the other. Case in point: my very first NYAFF 2018 review appeared over at Attract Mode and… given all that I just said… maybe I shouldn’t have been shocked by the discovery that someone partly responsible for a few of my all time fave video games (Persona 3/4/5) made such a stinker of a flick. Then you have the director of Liverleaf, Naito Eisuke, who also made Let’s Make the Teacher Have a Miscarriage Club, which I did not like one bit. Hence why I’m motivated to finally check out Puzzle and Raichi Hikari kurabu (both of which I’ve heard great things about). Back on topic: Liverleaf is, thus far, the best film I’ve seen of NYAFF 2018 thus far! Check it out for yourself on Sunday July 8, 7:00pm at the Walter Reade Theater.

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