Plays at Cinematheque on Oct. 17
The 1982 film Burst City is a Japanese dystopian/punk-rock action drama that follows a gritty, complex narrative rife with themes of classism, violence and protest.
In a word, Burst City is unconventional. The film abandons traditional storytelling tactics, which generates a jarring viewing experience that provokes feelings of unease and confusion.
For instance, the film dispenses its narrative with little exposition. It takes the risky approach of relying on the interactions between characters and the interspersed rock concert segments to progress the story.
The scenes that feature the bands performing are chaos incarnate. The music is catchy, and the lyrics are blatant, spiteful critiques of the fictional classist society that is Burst City. The actors go all out during the performances, creating a sense of anarchy that is further exaggerated by the editing and cinematography. The end result is quite compelling.
But those moments are underpinned by the highly stylized vignettes that follow the characters’ journeys. Each storyline begins somewhat detached from one another up until the final act. Impressively, dialogue is absent more often than not, leaving the viewer to instead linger in the silent emotionality of the moment.
A few of the vignettes are violent and incredibly disturbing. Similar to the musical portions, the editing and cinematography is exceptional at emphasizing the dehumanizing and horrific aspects in each of those scenes. There are particular instances that are hard to stomach.
Even so, the vast majority of those especially appalling scenes are arguably necessary and convey meaning that serves the plot.
However, what pulls all those elements together into a cohesive whole is the set and costume design. In addition to the tone, mood and overall atmosphere of the world being expressed through the sets and costumes, a great deal of story is relayed as well.
Like everything else, the costumes are extremely over-the-top. They’re flashy, eye-catching and an essential visual aid for distinguishing the different factions that are operating within Burst City. For instance, the punk-rock crew wears bedazzled leather jackets with striking, colourful makeup, while the upperclassmen sport uniform suits and ties. With so many plotlines and elements to keep track of, the costumes are helpful markers in addition to being aesthetically pleasing.
The set design, however, does a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of communicating the character of the world. Burst City adopts an industrial, grunge aesthetic that’s washed with various greys, blues and blacks. Everything looks cluttered, beat up and grimy. Without those sets, the world wouldn’t be nearly as distinct or intriguing.
Overall, Burst City is deeply engaging and a solid viewing experience. Even so, exercising some level of caution prior to watching is necessary. The movie can get fairly graphic and sexually explicit. Depending on how sensitive one might be to those aspects, this movie could be skipped. Otherwise, it’s worth a watch.
Published in Volume 76, Number 05 of The Uniter (October 7, 2021)