It’s safe to say that Masashi Yamamoto’s Wonderful Paradise is a nod to the surrealist Luis Bunuel’s eccentricities, especially in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972). If one is looking for weird, then this film delivers. It is even reminiscent of the attempts of the Katsuhito Ishii-led Grasshoppa clique with their fusion of CGI, tokusatsu and deadpan in Funky Forest: The First Contact (2005). But compared with the works mentioned, Yamamoto’s latest film lacks the self-reflexivity and irony of both Bunuel and the Grasshoppa clique.
We are introduced to the household of the Sasaya family, who, at the outset, are in the process of moving out of their house. Head of the household, Shuji (Seiko Ito), lost the house as a debt payment. His son, Yuta (Soran Tamoto) is a shut-in, while his daughter, Akane (Mayu Ozawa) is frustrated with all of them. Falling in her afternoon nap, Akane jokingly tweets about a house party at their garden, which gains traction while she is asleep. Diverse people are attracted who proceed at act acting weirdly while attending Akane’s supposedly little garden party.
A bourgeois household in decline seems to provide a great premise for subversion. But what happens in the progression of Wonderful Paradise seems to align positively with this decline. However, we do see some interesting characters: a newly married couple who find their place to celebrate, kids exploring the household to wash themselves, a kid who turns into a stick, a neighborhood weirdo who worships a Greek statue as Buddha, and so much more. All these supplement the initial thread of the family’s decline without any hint of irony.
A point of similarity with Bunuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgoisie is that the film progresses with interruptions. There’s an initial point in the narrative which is the Sasaya’s moving out, which is interrupted by Akane’s garden party. All the attempts of the family to move forward that day, from Shuji’s gambling problem to Yuta’s unemployment, also seem to get interrupted by what initially hinders them. However, these interruptions are not seen as hurdles to get over. Instead, the weirdness of Wonderful Paradise became a pass to not process this conflict.
If anything, Wonderful Paradise seem to present itself exactly how it is seen: as a celebration. What is to be celebrated in this family’s decline? Its potential to get itself together. The flaws of the family members are exposed, and maybe this film is a celebration of that, too. A celebration of Shuji’s gambling problem, of Yuta’s unemployment, of Akane’s impulsiveness. The film celebrates too much of its perceived humanity, the activities it permits and all the chaos surrounding it. Yet in the end, it just ends like any other hard party: waking up sober and ready to go home.
But all of this is told in a lively manner. Wonderful Paradise’s approach may somehow become imbalanced and extreme. Some parts are all too unreal, like the Greek statue worship, while others seem too real in the context of hard partying, like making out in secluded areas. This imbalance tends to work against the film in most cases. While contextually it fits, it rattles the other worldly design of the whole.
As in the Bunuel film, we wake up from the dream. But it sure wasn’t a nightmare. Wonderful Paradise is an eternal farewell. The last hurrah of this declining family. But the film starts and ends with no one leaving the premises, which speaks a lot about the underlying insecurity of this family in decline. And so, we end in a moment immortalized in a photograph. Again, this photograph, is itself, a celebration.
Wonderful Paradise is fun where it counts. While it even delivers more weird fun than Sion Sono’s latest, Prisoners of the Ghostland (2021), Wonderful Paradise suffers the same illness as the Sono film: that they both have a lot of things they want to say or include to the point of sacrificing what was important. In the case of Wonderful Paradise, it sacrifices opportunities for self-reflexivity, irony, and more punch in the gut humor for moments of weirdness and unnecessary realism. This is not to say its weirdness does not have merit. It’s weird where it counts, it’s just not meaningful.
Wonderful Paradise was streamed in the U.S. from August 20 to September 2 as part of JAPAN CUTS: Festival of New Japanese Film.