Cult is among the most abused words in the annals of movie promotion – especially when it is immediately conjoined with classic.
One reviewer of the low-budget Australian film/video Bondi Tsunami predicts (with peerless foresight) that it "is likely to end up labelled the first major Australian cult classic of the twenty-first century." Director Rachael Lucas proudly shares this view, referring to her film's "growing global cult popularity" and her intention to make the very first "cult Japanese surfing movie." And all this before the film barely appeared in cinemas.
But a film needs a long time before it can be judged a classic, and it needs a devoted audience before its cult can be identified. Bondi Tsunami is presumably trying to compensate, in self-generated hype, for what it lacks in mainstream industry support. Made in complete freedom on family funds, it is a bold and admirable attempt to make a new kind of youth movie for a new kind of youth market – kids who are more into MTV and DVD than ancient wisdom about three-act storytelling formats.
Bondi Tsunami is pretty much the same ten-minute segment looped nine times over. But the fantasy it offers is indeed striking. Four Japanese teenagers, Shark (Taki Abe), Yuto (Keita Abe), Kimiko (Miki Sasaki) and Gunja Man (Nobu-Hisa Ikeda), frolic in an Australia that appears almost completely devoid of Anglo culture and its citizens. These kids' search for the ultimate wave is conjured as a Zen-like experience of identity-loss in a zanily sublime landscape.
Lucas is inspired by mix-and-match contemporary music (its soundtrack is excellent), the spontaneity of the Nouvelle Vague movies of the '60s, the tenets of postmodern media theory, and a rather dubious conviction that "Easterners are not highly analytic people ... They don't have an innate need to construct depth or react to emotions."
Bondi Tsunami cruises on style alone – on the sureness of its smart pictorial compositions (from the director's own hand), and especially on the unimpeachable glamour and cool of its non-professional stars – and this proves not to be enough. Even a smidgen of plot, plus a few changes in mood, would have helped to offset the repetitiveness and occasional banality of the voice-over narration, with its riot of mixed metaphors ("gold flashes on the soul"), and the tiresome post-production tricks of digital editing. There is only so much driving, dagging about and staring into limitless space that can be taken in one sitting.
For a movie which is a paean to youth, Bondi Tsunami is surprisingly discreet on the topics of drugs and sex – perhaps a disadvantage of having your Mum and Dad as producers. And I found myself anticipating in vain the Deliverance-like moment, as in Bruno Dumont's bleak cross-America odyssey Twentynine Palms (2003), when suddenly the barbarians of Australia would appear to menace and possibly slaughter these good-looking surfers on their eternal, sun-drenched holiday. (A year later, Wolf Creek would materialise something very like this scenario.)
Either that, or they could collide smack bang, in the final scene, into a Detention Centre for refugees.
© Adrian Martin December 2004