An early scene in Eiji Uchida’s determinedly scuzzy indie filmmaking satire Lowlife Love illustrates the rivalries, naked opportunism, and painfully transparent ploys to maintain status that are sadly characteristic of the industrial fringes. At a restaurant, floundering director Tetsuo (Kiyohiko Shibukawa) sits glumly on one side of the counter while a presumably successful rival is surrounded by aspiring actresses on the other, holding impromptu auditions for his next zombie movie. As this is a regular social situation, Tetsuo has his loyal assistant Mamoru (Yoshihiko Hosoda) round-up some wannabes in order to compete with a similarly sized entourage. These two directors appear to represent different levels of industry standing but the one who seems to be doing well turns out to be as desperate as Tetsuo – his enthusiastic talk of an upcoming zombie movie is just a ruse to pick-up young women.
Lowlife Love, as its title implies, is a film about contradictions: to persevere in the film industry, especially in the indie trenches, requires unconditional commitment to the cause but moral and ethical compromises are frequently made to progress or just to scrape by. Even worse, such compromises will lead to the corruption of once-idealistic talents who use artistic autonomy as justification for thoroughly objectionable behaviour and the flagrant exploitation of anyone who comes into their orbit.
When we meet Tetsuo, he is a long way from his early promise as a festival prizewinner. Having failed to realize a substantial follow-up feature, the 39-year-old is now reduced to living with his parents, shooting AV videos, and running a dubious acting school, which serves an outlet for his professional frustration by giving him the chance to taunt or even abuse impressionable students until they achieve the requisite authenticity. Tetsuo senses a comeback when two new students seek enrollment – inexperienced actress Minami (Maya Okano), who seems rather passive but has a surprising propensity for raw emotional expression, and screenwriter Ken (Shugo Oshinari) whose material could restore the director’s credibility if executed with integrity.
Talent, though, is useless without proper financial backing, so Tetsuo desperately tries to raise the necessary funds by dealing with shady producer Kida (Denden), stealing from his family, and even joining a Christian church in the hope that the organization will become his benefactor. Further complications ensue when big-time studio director Kano (Kanji Furutachi) enters the picture, having recognized not only the quality of Ken’s screenplay but Minami’s star potential. Introduced as a naïve hopeful from the sticks, Minami seems to be positioned by Uchida as a tragically clichéd case of innocence lost but proves to be a sly operator who twists the exploitative tendencies of others to her own advantage (the film has a disturbingly cynical view of women, seeking them simultaneously as the exploited and exploiters).
Many of the narrative developments here are played for savage laughs at the expense of Japan’s cruelly diminished indie sector while others achieve a wounded poignancy depicting the soul-crushing disappointment that comes with the territory. This is a no holds barred expose by a director who really seems to have been there, done that, and been too cash-strapped to buy a new T-shirt. Uchida films the proceedings in a warts-and-all manner that can be occasionally off-putting in its ugliness, but is no less effective for it. The coffee shops that are used for financing meetings are about as upscale as Lowlife Love gets with Tetsuo’s home, acting studio, and the toilets of the after hours establishment that he uses to satisfy his rampant sexual urges have a grubby texture that conveys the depths of this industry underbelly. Fuelled by bravado that conceals his faltering confidence, Tetsuo exists in a perpetual state of squalor and is alternatively intent on bringing everyone down to his level, or stepping on them as a means of getting back up. Towards the end, Uchida suggests that Tetsuo might be capable of redemption but closes with a parting shot that refuses to let the renegade filmmaker off the hook for his copious transgressions.
At a time when the state of Japan’s indie sector has come in for a lot of flack, Lowlife Love could be taken as a fiercely concentrated attempt to stick the fork in it or as a perversely vitriolic rallying cry for creative revitalisation. This may be another indie movie about the travails of making an indie movie, but Uchida imbues his satire with so much hope, sadness, and volatility that it hits considerably harder than most insider riffs.