Lights! Gamera! Action!

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The film Pistol Opera is part of the New York Asian Film Festival 2002

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"Gamera 2" sends a few seismic jolts to the nervous system with the appearance of metallic insects who feed on the hardware in computers, transistors and cell phones. In other words, Tokyo's toast — unless "Earth's guardian," as the movie's super-cute heroine calls Gamera, comes to the rescue at supersonic speed (he's a Mach turtle). Some citizens are skeptical about vesting all hope for the nation's survival on a 200-ft.-tall monster who squishes tall buildings at a single tromp; they don't want Japan's equivalent of Reagan's Star Wars to be a Strategic Tortoise Initiative. But the humans here don't matter much. Their function is mostly to provide color commentary on the athletic contest in the sky: Gamera vs. a scissors-beaked bug that won't let go. Until the end.

"G2" takes its subtitle from Mark 5:9: "My name is Legion, for we are many." The more satisfying "G3" is anchored by a quote from "I Ching." A girl named Ayama (ethereal Ai Maeda), orphaned by an earlier Gamera attack, discovers something under a rock in a cave: a dodeca-tentacled thingie that will soon be the scourge of Nippon. That's all right with Ayama: "I'm going to raise him. And then he'll take revenge for me... He's just like me. Gamera killed his family too." Iris, as Ayama calls the creature, becomes her demon lover — a first boyfriend she'll never forget — as it enfolds and enslaves her. (Like David Cronenberg's "The Fly" from 1986, "G3" is about the fusion of a bright, lonely person with a predatory beast.) Then Iris is ready to fight it out with the big turtle guy.

"G3" is the best "Gamera" I've seen (for what that's worth), in part because it has much less Gamera; there's only so much character richness, let alone fun, to be found in shell, teeth, eyes, claws, scales, etc. But the movie has thrills for those who need 'em. Toward the end, a young scientist faces Iris and his doom and, a moment before he dies, screams like a cheerleader at his own immolation: "Oh boy, is this scary? Yes!" I second that notion.

Kim Song-jin's "Kick the Moon" is another sequel, this to the 1999 Korean hit "Attack the Gas Station," about four teen hooligans who rob a gas station, beat up a few hostages and get caught in a crossfire between gangsters and delivery boys. Now it's a few years later. Gi-dong (Cha Seung-won), the lead punk of "Gas Station," has become a high-school teacher, and Young-joon, the victim of the rough boys' pranks (Lee Sung-jae), is a brainy gangster. But old traits die hard: Young-joon is still earnest and watchful, while Gi-dong is the teacher as rogue cop, with such tricks from the Three Stooges school of pedagogy as slapping his charges' scalps and twisting their ears. Love interest Ju-ron (Kim Hye-su), who runs the local fast-food joint that turns both men into ramen-noodle fanciers, is also a severe disciplinarian. She kicks and bites her bigger kid brother, then flips him to the ground in front of his friends and teacher.

Since the setting is the venerable city of Gyeongju, for a thousand years the Korean capital, it's not surprising that underclassmen relate the exploits of "Gas Station" as if they were retelling an Arthurian legend, or that Gi-dong wants to go medieval on his class. The teacher's students join the gangster's gang, and tempers invariably escalate; as Young-joon warns his old adversary, "You're opening the gas valve in a burning house." The gas hits the flame in a climactic multi-gang melee that leaves more casualties than Inchon. "Kick" could be saying something about the modern Asian stand-off between scholarship and capitalism, or how, at heart, everyone's a thug. Anyway, this is a symphony of teeming mayhem, punctuated by the clash of symbols.


For many, the most eagerly awaited film in the Subway set was "Pistol Opera," But first, a little backstory about its predecessor "Branded to Kill," recently released on a Criterion DVD and a must for any film lover with a strange streak. Like two other superb movies from 1967 — Jean-Pierre Melville's "Le Samourai" and John Boorman's "Point Blank" — it's an existential-gunman saga. As incarnated by Jo Shishido, Hanada is an assassin who wears cool shades at midnight, has a 24-hr. craving for boiled rice, and radiates a sang-froid you could cut a hole through and go ice fishing. But he's no chiseled Eastwood or haunted Mifune, partly because Shishido had undergone collagen injections in his cheeks; it made him look like a chipmunk blowing a Dizzy Gillespie high C. If this were 90s Hong Kong instead of 60s Tokyo, he'd be an Anthony Wong thug who mistakenly thinks he has Chow Yun-fat's killer charisma.

But then, as laid out in the Hachiro Guryu script,Hanada is not charismatic antihero material; he's No. 3 in the pistoleros' hierarchy, and thinks he's more likely to tumble down the list than ascend to No. 1. His face is creased with the fretfulness of a middle manager in Japan's cradle-to-grave corporate structure — accent on the grave. Plus, his wife is shtupping the boss. Indeed, he has trouble with all sorts of women: the romantic, suicidal sort and the chatty, homicidal kind. But eventually he has to go against the top gun. They eat together, sleep together (each handcuffed to a cot) and talk through most of the final act. When Bastard No. 1 asks questions of Bastard No. 3, it's like "The Dating Game," except, at the end, somebody dies. And why must life so abruptly doused? No. 1 shrugs: "Things happen."

You can find all the bravado and gunplay familiar and still be entranced by the movie, because Suzuki makes things happen. He fills the wide-screen frame with way-off-center compositions in bold chiaroscuro; yet he doesn't editorialize — this is style as terse as a coroner's report. Without preening or dawdling, he provides plenty of cool visuals: the women who gets shot, falls into a swivel chair and takes her last carousel ride; or the overhead shot of her head facing up resting on a toilet bowl, with her blood muddying the swirling water below. The twist at film's end is not so wrenching as the surprise Suzuki's bosses at Nikkatsu had in store after he finished it. They declared that the movie "made no sense" and fired him. I doubt that the director took much satisfaction in being validated by film history; he didn't make another picture for 10 years.

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