Jam (Japan, 2018) [NYAFF 2019]

Jam is return to form for actor-director, Sabu. After some thematic and stylistic drift, which has seen him give light-hearted family drama a chance with Usagi Drop (2011) then try his hand at romantic comedy with Chasuke’s Journey (2015), Jam, along with another recent film, Mr. Long (2017), sees the return of Sabu’s signatures His better known films feature walking, running, and other forms of physical movement which also guide the narrative to move to the next plot point. What’s new in Jam is Sabu’s non-linear approach to narrative.

The film follows three characters as they try to move from one place to another. Hiroshi (Sho Aoyagi) is an Enka idol moving from private performances to a big concert at the civic center; Tetsuo (Nobuyuki Suzuki) is out with a hammer to take revenge to the gang who left him to be arrested; and Takeru (Keita Machida) has heard the voice of god and is out to do three good deeds each day.

Looking at the narratives separately, the three stories have different approaches that complement each protagonist’s persona. In composition and editing Hiroshi’s, arc tends to be as smooth, as is his attitude towards his female audience during private concerts. Tetsuo’s is grittier, more rugged, as is his troubled personality. Takeru’s seem to be trapped between the two approaches: his jolly personality and his current disposition as a grieving lover are what causes the film’s tug between comedy and tragedy.

As it weaves the narrative, the film also weaves the styles. Tones overlap. When Takeru meets Hiroshi, the film suddenly gets a comedic vibe. The film seems darker when the characters intersect with Tetsuo. Hiroshi, being the smooth flowing character, seems to be the one adaptive to the strong tones of both arcs. These shifts in tone, rather than complicating the whole structure, give the film a more varied texture.

Jam does not aim for balance. And this is, I think, its best artistic achievement: it never pretends to expose all sides of the story, despite depicting each characters’ dilemma. We know very little information about each of them and this neglect of knowledge is what Sabu exploits to the point that we might not be able to understand each character fully. And because there are a lot of things that we don’t know, the film keeps us interested. Each sequences hangs, as if waiting for someone to hold it or touch it. These hangers are exploited in the film to further close the initially loose narratives. How Hiroshi the Enka singer became linked with the criminal gang is told loosely. The same applies to how Tetsuo is tied with Takeru. But this looseness is exactly what drives the narrative forward.

On the other hand, the non-linear narrative style reveals a unifying thread: the criminal gang. It is in this sense that Jam becomes more emphatic to its characters, whether major or minor. The non-linear narrative style Sabu utilizes here recalls Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994) wherein the amount of screen time for each character is not really significant. The characters unfold through their unique personalities, which overemphasize or exaggerate their respective archetypal cliché. This, in effect, makes them all almost equally remarkable. In Jam, it does not matter whether the criminals have become a side story to the three arcs as the film is generous enough to reveal to us what troubles them.

Jam is a play on different elements, temperaments and tones. It’s a seemingly fresh formal exercise for a veteran such as Sabu. Admittedly, it’s a kind of work that might not feel right to some. Its looseness might even appear indecisiveness while its deliberate inconsistencies might appear as misinformed aesthetic. But like freestyle jazz, it’s this jam that makes the whole worth experiencing rather than the parts.

Jam was shown at the New York Asian Film Festival 2019 on July 8 2019.

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