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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If "Branded" is a jazz theme in black-and-white, "Pistol Opera" is a brightly daubed, more abstract variation played by an all-girl band. Now No. 3 is called Stray Cat (chicly incarnated by ex-volleyballer Makiko Esumi), on assignment from "the Guild" to knock off her rivals — here the assassinations are all in the Family. After a splendid early scene of a perforated gunslinger tumbling from the roof of Tokyo Station, the film becomes a chat session: Stray Cat with a grandma, a little girl, a Muse in a visor and, preeminently, with the oldest gun in the East. The alterkocker's aphorisms peg him as Suzuki's stand-in: "With all your wisdom and technique, killing blooms into an artwork. ... We make the impossible possible, and turn it into art. ... Be proud to be a pro." Pride is all the old man can cling to. "I may be disabled," he says, "but I can still pull a trigger." He tosses a leeringly hopeful aside to Stray Cat: "Want to try me?"

Set to reggae and steel-band music, the film is also Caribbean in its visual scheme: bright primary colors as background for the black- and white-robed killers. The action sleepwalks through fabulous architecture of the futurist and industrial modes, and there's a gorgeous tableau of the women against a rippling digital sea that seems to reflect a burnt-sienna sunset. If the art of direction were only art direction, "Pistol Opera" would be a masterpiece. Instead, it's the movie Nikkatsu thought it got back in 1967: a pretty abstraction that tosses narrative logic in the air and plugs it full of holes. Suzuki makes the implausible laudable, and turns it into cinematic glamour.


Much Asian pop cinema is gonzo (and Ginza) guy stuff: a parade of acid testosterone attitudes and mine's-bigger gunmanship. Even Stray Cat sports a set of chrome cojones. In Thanit Jitnukul's "Bang Rajan," the Siamese patriots, male and female, wield mean machetes in defense of their village against the marauding Burmese, and the air is thick with beheadings and dis-armings. If there's a femme side to Derek Chiu's Hong Kong suspenser "Comeuppance," it's that the killer's weapon of choice is poison, and neither he nor the implacable cop on his trail cares to speak above a whisper. The macho posturing here is handled by the triad thugs who get a few moments of bombast before they become cyanide corpses.

But unlike American movie pop, the Asian variety is an equal-opportunity exploiter. It offers starring roles to women and potent characters for them to play. Often, at least in the Subway selections, women are complex figures whose mystery and exasperations lure decent Joes into their web. Rathnam's "Dil Se" describes such a pairing: a radio journalist (Indian charm-boy Shahrukh Khan) meets a pensive lovely (Manisha Koirala) and pursues her despite her protestations. "What do you know about me?" "Nothing, except that I love you." We know, though he doesn't, that she is a militant on a suicide-bomb mission.

Before the explosive finale, they dance through some giddy production numbers: atop a speeding train, cocooned inside a red silk bag, cootching through those favorite Indian musical trappings, slo-mo and smoke pots. "Dil Se" (literally, From the Heart) is not major Rathnam; for that, track down the director's great gangster epic "Nayakan," his inside-Bollywood drama "The One" or his earlier terrorist love story "Roja." This movie is just an enjoyably irresponsible romp.

Two more radio journalists fall in love in the Korean "One Fine Spring Day," from director Hur Jin-ho. They meet on a joint assignment to record rural sounds for a show called "Nature and People." The movie is as aurally attentive as the two recordists; it's got a lush sound track of the wind tickling high reeds and the thump of two wayward hearts. The young man, Sang-woo (Yoo Ji-tae), is the more sensitive of the two — he can hear snow fall! — and has a tighter grip on their affair than does Eun-su (Lee Young-ae). He gets it going and wants to keep it going. So does the viewer, who's here to watch a love story. The film is a minute chronicle of any affair's anxieties and banalities, its negotiations, ecstasies and inevitable inequities. This is what happens when two people try to become one.

But does it usually happen this slowly? Does anybody pause between declarations and stare meaningfully into the middle distance as much as these two? The film's measured ordinariness is meant to be edifying, but eventually it suffocates. Though it ladles on the soppy music ("Plaisir d'Amour"), and though its style isn't controlled enough to be mistaken for European minimalism, "Spring Day" is an art-house movie in all its longueurs and stifled emotions, its camera as immobile as a child too frightened to move. I suspect the Subway people put it their festival as a point of comparison with more vigorous fare.

Like, for example, "My Sassy Girl" — a huge hit in Korea and, DreamWorks hopes, a smash when translated into American. Based on an Internet diary that became a best-selling book, "Sassy" is a cinematic Slurpee: soft, sweet and cool to the palate. Mind you, if our heroine (Jeon Ji-hyun) were handed one of those 7-Eleven snow cones, she'd probably dump it on the head of our hero Gyun-woo (Cha Tae-hyun). She's a troubled soul who has a knack of vomiting on a stranger's toupee; Gyun-woo is mistakenly pegged as her boyfriend, and that's this movie's version of meeting cute. He's a sensitive guy with a fondness for pastel sweaters and a gentleness toward a woman who won't kiss him. He is, somehow, also heterosexual; can there be such men?

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