Review By: Jason Oliver
Please excuse this review of SPECIAL ACTORS in advance as it could come across as overly effusive, positive, and self-reflective. However, Shinichito Ueda makes very pleasant, surprising, and playful films that also very much represent those qualities. In 2017, Ueda made and released his first feature length film, ONE CUT OF THE DEAD. It cost about $25,000 USD and shot in 8 days. It features a 37 minute long continuous take, which took 6 takes to accomplish . It had very modest financial goals, but ended up far exceeding them to the tune of over 30 million dollars worldwide making it perhaps the most successful film ever made by earning over a thousand times its budget – and it’s a spectacular movie. It was one of my favorite movies of 2019 when it was finally available in the U.S market. I defy anyone to watch it and not come away with a huge smile on your face. It’s the kind of movie you want to share with family, friends and anyone else who will listen. In fact, if you haven’t seen it, please stop reading this now and find a way to watch it. I don’t believe you will be disappointed but if you are, I’m sorry for you.
As you could imagine, I was very excited to be able to see and review Ueda’s sophomore feature film, SPECIAL ACTORS, playing at Fantasia Fest 2020 this year. But I was also nervous. Could it possibly live up to my very high expectations after so thoroughly enjoying Ueda’s completely surprising debut? I’ve blown the answer with the lead here as of course the answer is “yes”. A big “YES” in fact. I cannot imagine having more fun at the movies this year than I did watching SPECIAL ACTORS. It’s fair after two features to assign a style and tone to Ueda’s features and the best word to describe both is “joyful”.
Ueda makes movies about things he knows. Where ONE CUT OF THE DEAD is principally about making and directing movies, SPECIAL ACTORS is about acting, of course. Our lead, Kazuto, played perhaps a bit too sleepily but still effectively by actor Kazuto Osawa, has a problem. He wants to be an actor, but has a crippling anxiety disorder that causes him to faint in circumstances of extreme stress, especially when berated by male authority figures, like the film directors he commonly auditions for. He’s seeing a doctor for his ailment but isn’t getting much help. He then loses his job as a security officer for being too passive. On one of his last nights on the job he bumps into his brother, Hiroki, that he hasn’t seen for over 5 years who makes an interesting proposition to him. He’s been working for an acting agency that specializes in placing actors into normal and mundane real life scenarios like queuing in a line to create buzz for a product, laughing at a movie in the theater, or crying at a CEO’s funeral. It seems like the perfect job for Kazuto since the stakes are low and so is the stress involved. He’s apprehensive at first but seems to thrive at the small jobs he gets, like being a tough customer to test a restaurant owner’s staff.
The Special Actors agency then gets a new client, 18 year old Yumi, who is concerned that her older sister is succumbing to the cons of a cult who have taken up residence in their deceased parents’ hotel. Hiroki then volunteers himself and his brother Kazuto to infiltrate the cult to find out more information. At this suggestion, Kazuto faints and the opening credits roll. It’s a 24 minute cold open, similar in story structure to ONE CUT’s 37 minute cold open, and I knew at that moment this movie had me.
I’d like to spend a few moments deconstructing our main character Kazuto. This is the where I beg forgiveness regarding the self-reflective nature of this write-up. I have generalized and social anxiety and it’s something I have struggled with since childhood. I have managed to cobble together a marginally successful career in technology despite this affliction (film criticism is a non-profitable side hustle and hobby I’m so grateful for), but I have no doubt that this anxiety has had negative effects on my education, professional career, intimate relationships, my marriage, friendships, and relationships with family. It is something I live and deal with every single day. It does not go away and I don’t get breaks from it. Some days are easier than others, but it is always there. As I write this I am filled with self doubt and self criticism. And like Kazuto, I believe the seed of this anxiety was planted by a parent and the verbal and emotional abuse I endured at their expense. Even now I feel like an impostor, because I know with certainty that the abuse I experienced pales in comparison to the experience of others, but nonetheless, my experience is real and it shaped me.
And while Kazuto’s anxiety is exaggerated and played for laughs, it NEVER feels mean spirited. It feels relatable. When he begs his doctor to give him practical solutions to fix himself, I feel that in my bones. When Kazuto wants to quit, even when he knows carrying on is the right thing to do, I completely get it and I think others like myself will too. Kazuto finds the kind of comfort in his childhood hero Rescueman (a hilarious U.S. superhero parody) that I find in movies. They are a way to view the world safely at a distance, but also as fantasy.
I also appreciate that the movie does not dance around with ambiguity regarding the cult’s intentions. They are con people, established early as such, and now unwittingly are the mark of another gallery of con people in our Special Actors troupe. What unfolds from here is simply too delicious and humorous to belabor with words. The structure of this cult and their leaders is funny enough on its own, but then you have Kazuto who seems so put upon at every turn, his brother and other cast members relishing their roles, the writers and acting coach cooking up ideas. The best way I can describe the humor would be by comparing it to 1988’s DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS. The con man is conning the con man, the hi-jinks are absurd, the comedy is a bit slapstick, some people aren’t who they seem, and there isn’t anything mean spirited in the entire affair. It also functions as a remake of a certain thriller from 1997, but divulging that title would be spoiling the fun. And much like ONE CUT OF THE DEAD’s movie in a movie, that revelation increases the rewatchability factor.
Ueda has a keen sense of comedic timing and circumstance and it’s marvelous to see the actors he works with react to things. Everything in a Ueda film is a little extra, but not in that annoying way that exhausts you. Characters are slightly hyper-realized and not terribly complex, but again, relatable and contextualized. In a melodrama this would be a criticism but here it’s exactly the palette Ueda is most comfortable working from. It allows him to tell a fun story with surprises and manages to make the comedy in itself, new and fresh. If you know and love ONE CUT OF THE DEAD, you know the feeling his storytelling evokes and to say more about SPECIAL ACTORS would be diminishing to the experience. See it. Share it. It’s that rare movie that is for everyone, sweet but not saccharine, silly but not stupid, touching but not piteous. Again, joyful. And also, maybe not so rare. Shinichito Ueda is two for two.