Lights! Gamera! Action!

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

(4 of 4)

This clinically nice guy is the classic co-dependent who realizes the absurdity of his obsession. He says, "I want to heal her sorrow," yet when classmates say she's pretty, replies, "A girl needs to act pretty." She doesn't act pretty. She writes movie scenarios with titles like "Demolition Terminator" and exercises her need to be a public scold. The plot is an elaborate obstacle course she sets up to test his love. She insists he show up for a date she has with another man. She asks for a rose and he brings it onstage while she is playing piano before a large audience (this being a love story, the tune is predictably Pachelbel's "Canon in D Major'). She gets the warms for him and pages him in the subway; he runs to embrace her, but she snaps, "Who told you to hug me?" and slaps him hard; when he cringes, she explains, "You were supposed to duck." He never ducks. He is forever walking right into the fist of her magnetism.

Throughout, he lives in hope, she in some secret regret. That's the secret of the movie's emotional holding power, along with the appeal of the two leads and a canny mining of old movie tropes by scripter Kim Ho-sik and director Kwok Jae-young. "Sassy" brazenly makes use of time-capsule love letters and pining for a dead beau. It boasts not one but two "Love in the Afternoon"-style scenes in which a lover runs down a platform after the beloved on a departing train.

All this surely appealed to the DreamWorks scouts, but I'll bet it was the "ten rules" scene that clinched the deal. When Gyun-woo dutifully appears as the third wheel on her blind date, he instructs his possible successor in the ten commandments of making this wayward child happy. It's a selfless declaration of his own love, and helps make "Sassy," for all its calculation, into the most endearing Asian date movie since Jingle Ma's 1999 "Fly Me to Polaris," a Hong Kong blind-dead-guy love story.

Someone just informed me that not all men are sweet puppies who long to be whacked on the snout of their unconditional devotion. A few fellows still have a nasty streak, and they all show up in the Japanese "Freeze Me." Harumi Inoue plays Chihiro, who lives in Tokyo and has an OK boyfriend. Five years before, she was the victim of a three-guy rape in her home town; now one of them has forced himself into her apartment. What's a girl to do but conk him dead and stuff him in her freezer? (Small flat, big fridge.) Then a second thug arrives. "It's your fault," says this once-and-future rapist, echoing the rationale of all weak men inflamed by strong women. "You're too sexy. Your face, your tits, your ass." Soon he's in cold storage, just before the third and worst one, an older yakuza, drops by. "Don't struggle," he mutters as he brutalizes her. "You'll break my watch band." That's his cue to chill out.

Chihiro is getting good at this. She is also working up a sweat. She tells her freezer geezers: "You guys are lucky. It's cool where you are. Out here I'm dying of the heat." Finally Mr. OK Boyfriend comes to visit, but by now she's deep into her payback groove, even against the one lover who hasn't wronged her. "Freeze Me" says we are programmed to violent behavior: men to be predators and women, eventually, to see all men at their worst and to mete out indiscriminate vengeance.

The picture is often programmatic too, not much more than a "Panic Room" with a sub-zero thermostat. But Inoue is an eyeful as well as a handful. She carries the film on her comely shoulders, leaving moviegoers to decide how to react to the grim proceedings. Will they be sympathetic onlookers or pathetic voyeurs, taking pleasure in her plight, high on her naked agitation?


Our journey through Asian pop cinema ends with "Visitor Q," the sort of film that scholars call "transgressive cinema" — which means movies that are dirty or violent, but pretentiously so. And that's right up my critical alley. So are some of Miike's pictures, like the gangster-gorey "Fudoh: The New Generation" and the colorful "City of Lost Souls" (less so his exercises in sadism, "Audition" and "Ichi the Killer"). A proponent of the moving-target theory, Miike keeps busy: he directed 19 films in the past three years, and Internet Movie Database lists five more already in 2002. "Q" was made in a week, for about $70,000, as an entry in the CineRocket video series. It's meta-weird, and sometimes a chore to watch, but most rewarding, and not just as a test for your threshold of squirm.

The movie, written by Itaru Era ("Full Metal Yakuza"), poses three questions. "Have you ever done it with your dad?" This girl (Fujiko) does, in the film's first scene. She's a prostitute who charges her father (Kenichi Endo) an exorbitant 300,000, calls him an "early bird" for his premature ejaculation and captures the event on digital video. "Have you ever been hit on the head?" A stranger (Kazushi Watanabe) does, while Dad sits in a train station. Hey, it's human contact, so Dad invites the guy home. "Have you ever hit your mom?" Young Takuya (Jun Muto) does belt his mom (Shungiku Uchida) with a switch, when he's not tossing her through the paper walls of an apartment way too cramped to contain all this domestic animosity. Mom can hardly find the privacy to shoot the balm of heroin into her thigh.

"Dysfunctional" hardly does justice to this family's individual and communal eccentricities; disastrous is closer. Like daughter, like mother: Mom turns tricks to support her habit. Takuya is a sadist at home, a victim at school. Classmates pitch firecrackers at him; later they force the boy to defecate by a highway and urinate on him. Like so many of the family's adventures, it is captured on video, this time by Dad. He's a TV reporter, you see, sacked for obsessive fidelity to his metier, which is interviewing teens in moments of their greatest brutality or humiliation. His big scoop came when a gang of thugs trapped him, depantsed him and stuck his TV mike where the sun don't shine.

Re-viewing the video of his micro-sodomy, then seeing Takuya's classmates kick him, Dad has the inspiration to film his own son's adventures in victimhood, and drags along a skeptical female colleague (Shoko Nakahara) to observe. When she protests, he assaults her, kills her and takes her corpse home to test his kitchen and bedroom skills on it. Meanwhile, Mom has befriended the stranger and shows him her facility for lactating. As he massages her breasts, she reaches orgasm...

Hel-lo! Anyone still out there in cyberland? If so, you'll have to take our word that "Visitor Q" is neither cruel nor exploitative toward its bizarre characters. It takes ordinary family vectors — a father consumed by his job but interested in his children, a mother who feels estranged yet needs to nurture, two kids who find that, however much they rebel against their parents, there's no place like home — and bends them into melodramatic metaphor. For all the extreme behavior on display, the movie gradually reveals a tenderness toward the clan. If they are a distortion of the standard TV-family household, the Cleavers with cleavers, they ultimately unite in a symbiotic Pieta. Perhaps to understand this family is to go mad with them ... but what are movies if not vehicles for exploration into the beyond and the beneath, into what can't be spoken but can, with such rough poignancy, be shown?

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