Starring: Gaku Hamada, Eugene Kim, Josh Brodis, Mariane Barnes
Director: Junya Sakino
A sake bomb, for those who haven’t had the pleasure, is a cup of sake dropped into a three-quarters-full pint of beer and downed in one. In this case, metaphorically speaking, the beer is Southern California, and the cup of sake falling into it is one Naoto (Gaku Hamada), a young Japanese man who comes to LA for a week’s holiday in hopes of tracking down his long-lost love Olivia and finding out why she left him without a word.
Tasked with assisting him in this endeavour is Naoto’s American-born cousin Sebastian (Eugene Kim), who confounds stereotypes of polite, hard-working Asians by being rude, lazy and unemployed (he whiles away his days posting sarcastic vlogs and watching his collection of vintage Asian-American porn). Sebastian takes an instant dislike to Naoto, who has all the virtues he lacks, but grudgingly agrees to drive him to San Francisco, Olivias’ last known whereabouts.
What follows is a fish out of water comedy with a twist. Because, while Naoto is embraced wherever he goes by westerners steeped in Japanese popular culture and thrilled to meet the real thing, it’s Sebastian who is the outsider, constantly at loggerheads with everyone around him and channelling his own very personal sense of inferiority into diatribes on the subtle racism concealed within 21st century multicultural discourse. And it’s this fearless engagement with a slippery topic which gives the film an impact far beyond that of your average buddie movie, culminating in a standout sequence (Sake-Bomb‘s equivalent of the deli scene in When Harry Met Sally) when Sebastian and Annie (Jessika Van), a Taiwanese girl, trade razor-sharp, ethnic-oriented insults in an increasingly frenzied tit-for-tat in an effort to get a rise out of each other.
At moments like these, Sake-Bomb seems to articulate a fresh, exciting new voice just as the early works of Spike Lee did. But there’s nothing hectoring about it. The vibe is relaxed and easygoing as the central duo encounter various cool characters played by bright young actors – Josh Brodis’ Michael, a charming gay guy who’s into cosplay, and Mariane Barnes’ Joslyn, a feisty redhead who writes comic books. The cinematography by Sam Yano is very interesting – bright, flattened, Technicolorish, as if to say you can’t be a visitor to California without also feeling you’re in a movie. The South Cal locations, Junya Sakino’s breezy, lyrical directorial style, the prevailing mood of bitter-sweet disenchantment in Jeff Mizushima’s excellent screenplay and, of course, the references to alcohol also call to mind the Paul Giamatti hit Sideways – and if you savoured that film, this one might well be your tipple too. It’s all wrapped around an inspired turn from (the actually Korean-American) Eugene Kim as a scurrilous comic antihero who scatters lethal wisecracks right and left like a ninja throwing handfuls of shuriken.
The film is perhaps a little less sunny and evolved, a little more angry and conflicted than it at first appears. You could argue it contradicts its own plea to move beyond stereotypes by employing stereotypes itself (there’s a predictably racist redneck traffic cop who makes condescending jokes, and all of the non-Asian women in the film are presented as promiscuous and disposable). And entertaining though he is, Sebastian is disturbing figure – the more so, the more you think about him – because he’s not just at odds with his Asian heritage, he seems to have a palpable, if unexpressed, hostility towards his western upbringing too. But all this comes with the territory. Much more than just a fun movie with a fusion flavour, Sake-Bomb is a rare film that actually has something to say, and it might even be remembered in times to come as an important one.
The DVD has with 29-minute interview with director Junya Sakino, and a very lively 23-minute film festival Q&A. Both have slightly dodgy picture and sound but are full of fascinating insights. Sakino talks in a very honest way about his background (born in Japan, moved to LA when he was 19), how he got into movies, the problems of getting the film financed, and he even cheerfully fields a question about penis size. There’s also a full 4-minute version of the spoof porno Sebastian watches in the film, Yellow Curry on White Rice, supposedly the work of his hero Long Wang and starring Mary Carey of Celebrity Rehab fame.