Sang-Il Lee’s Scrap Heaven stands as something of a companion piece to David Fincher’s Fight Club, both works examining the effects of economic dehumanization and oppressive social constructions with a refreshingly youthful vigor, like a ribald twentysomething with everything to prove and nothing to lose in the process. Lee knows his aesthetic and thematic debts, yet his film holds its own distinctiveness, both through its jazzy construction (less intricate and heady than Fincher’s labyrinthine character examination) as well as its Japan-specific evocation of destructive urban malaise. Shingo (Ryô Kase) is an unhappy clerk at a police station whose requests for transfer have thus far been ignored; Tetsu (Jô Odagiri) is a self-declared rebel in anguish over his father’s mental illness; and Saki (Kuriyama Chiaki) is a drug store employee whose false eye has kept her largely on the cusp of society. The three find themselves together on a transit bus when an emotionally disturbed politician hijacks their ride, his crazed antics culminating in a game of Russian roulette all are forced to partake in. Only Tetsu is wounded before the mania concludes, but the emotional scars suffered by all bring out their subdued feelings of angst and revenge; before long, Tetsu and Shingo have opened an underground business to carry out the revenge fantasies of interested clients, while Saki satiates her inner anarchist by dabbling in high-explosive chemicals.
An attention-grabbing, staccato editing scheme opens the film and continues to serve as a regular transitional effect throughout; like its main characters, Scrap Heaven is a work that deliberately seeks to shake things up. In expressing its character’s evolving senses of morality and justice, the film proves almost masterful in its evocation of individual perspectives, at once indulging in the gleeful, anarchistic spirit of Tetsu and Shingo’s revenge-fantasy camp, while also bringing to the table a learned sense of social balance. The film never truly makes peace with the establishment, but it senses the soul-crushing danger of the unruly Project Mayhem scenario, as experienced by its characters when the effects of their actions grow beyond their own control. Lee expresses these shifts in perspective to the audience almost subconsciously, through color-coded compositions and disarmingly hilarious chance encounters; like his own, distinctly sunnier Hula Girls, Scrap Heaven is comprised almost entirely of characters battling out the inner tidal shifts of society. Its characters never find all the answers they’re looking for, but if the final, unlikely series of events provides any sort of moral closure, it’s the lesson that even a fucked-up life is worth living.