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NISID HAJARI Tokyo Japanese director Takashi Ishii cut an odd figure at the premiere of his latest film, The Black Angel, Vol. 2. Onstage before the highly anticipated screening (tickets reportedly sold out in an hour), four actors and two actresses stood ranked like a forest of Comme des Garcons models--tall, icily coiffed, clad head-to-toe in black. The diminutive director, himself all in black, threw off the clean lines of the assemblage. But he was even more disruptive when taking questions after the film had unspooled. To one viewer's complaint that the glossy, mindless thriller was unconvincing, Ishii agreed. I thought I was just making an entertaining action movie--something that might even go straight to the video shop, he said. There are movies meant for film festivals, and then there are movies that are only meant to be consumed.Fine, except Ishii's film was being screened as part of last week's Tokyo International Film Festival. And his tone of gloomy self-abnegation colored much of the rest of the fest as well. Japan's commercial cinemas have fared unusually well amid the current recession, with distribution revenue up 23% over the first half of 1998 (buoyed in large part by the success of last year's TIFF opener, Titanic, which has grossed more than $175 million in Japan). But the lack of any equally high-wattage event--and severe cutbacks in funding--produced a notably subdued festival this year. The slate of new Japanese films in particular generated few plaudits. The fest's true pleasures were quiet ones shot farther afield in Asia, films whose charms might have been lost in the klieg lights of more glamorous years.Ishii's flashy Black Angel measures how far short Japan's entries fell this year. Its heroine--sleek, statuesque Yuki Amami--sleeps in a luxuriously austere apartment, with only a bottle of whiskey, a shiny cell-phone and an even shinier gun by her side. Ishii shoots her like a cartoon figure: when she drinks, her swigs rumble like an avalanche; when she fights, her every motion is exaggerated, with grand tumbles frozen frame-by-frame. The conceit is matched by the overdone plot, in which a botched hit reunites her with a long-lost yakuza love and sets off a bloody chain-reaction involving a distraught florist and an army of Armani-clad gangsters. Ishii's melodrama, however, lacks heart. While the actors go through the stylized motions--feigning anger, grief, anomie--their passions are too clinical to flesh out the comic-book dimensions the director has drawn them.PAGE 1  |    |  
 
Ishii might have done better to overindulge himself, as famed director Kinji Fukasaku does with his opulent The Geisha House. Best known for 1960s genre pictures like Black Lizard, the 68-year-old Fukasaku would seem an odd choice to direct a movie about geishas in 1950s Kyoto. Yet he revels in the gaudiness of his subject. The old-school director ratchets up the film's formula conventions--filling the screen with bright costumes, soaring strings and heart-tugging moments better suited to a Disney epic. Then he places those tools at the service of a strenuously Japanese story, in which a sunny maidservant strives dutifully to become a geisha to feed her poor yet good-hearted family. The combination is ludicrous, and at times cloying (especially when the girls of the geisha house dispense giggly homilies like, We're free people; we have our own morals). But Fukasaku makes the melodrama work as camp. The geishas, flitting about like bright-winged butterflies, look like manga heroines come to Technicolor life; their over-the-top escapades and bitchy outbursts are no more silly than Black Angel's posturing, and far more entertaining.Still, a guilty pleasure isn't always the most satisfying. While The Geisha House may have made better use of the grand gesture than most other Japanese films at the fest, the best local productions chose a more austere route. Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Qualified to Live and Masahiro Kobayashi's Bootleg Film in particular succeed on similar dark, absurdist and disturbingly funny ground. The former has the more illustrious pedigree: Kurosawa brings back star Koji Yakusho (Cure, The Eel) as a middle-aged eccentric who takes in his friend's 24-year-old son (Hidetoshi Nishijima) when he wakes from a 10-year coma. Unsurprisingly, the film turns on the strength of their performances. Nishijima stumbles through the movie with an engaging vacuousness--acquainting himself with adult life (So-so, he says of losing his virginity, so once is enough), flapping his gangly limbs, aching to reunite his dysfunctional family. His alienation is as accessible as a child's; in his longing and confusion lie moments of gentle comedy and rapt sadness.Nevertheless, Kobayashi's may be the more amusing movie. Shot in black-and-white Cinemascope amid the snow-swept mountains of Hokkaido, Bootleg Film flirts with cinematic cliche: two best friends--one a cop and the other a hitman--drive north to attend the funeral of a woman who had been the wife of one and lover of the other. Dressed identically in black suits, white dress-shirts and sneakers, the contentious duo look like Tarantino characters, and they know it. In one side-splitting sequence the assassin quizzes a girl he has kidnapped on the names of the actors in Reservoir Dogs. (She mocks him for mispronouncing one Steebu Scemi.) The pair's antagonism builds imperceptibly through the drive, allowing Kobayashi both the luxury of slapstick over much of the film as well as a painful climax when the two finally spill their venom.  |  2  |  
 
Though filled with allusions to classic French cinema, Bootleg thankfully avoids the ponderousness of most existential comedies. Several other Asian films were not so lucky, including this year's only entries from Taiwan and South Korea--Wan Jen's Connection by Fate and Lee Kwang-mo's Spring in My Hometown. Both take a perverse pleasure in the cryptic. Wan has a nice touch with scenery and sounds (a mix of haunting aboriginal chants and European baroque music). But his tale of a cabdriver and the ghost who befriends him limps under the weight of heavy-handed philosophizing about the island's politics and a smothering sense of grief. The problem is made literal by Lee's film, a meditation on the life of a border village near the end of the Korean War. Most scenes are shot from an inexplicable distance, rendering the main characters mere specks in the landscape and their actions impenetrable.Going the other direction isn't necessarily the answer. Indeed the foremost complaint about TIFF's only mainland Chinese film--first-time director Zhang Yang's fuzzy hit, Spicy Love Soup--has been that the romantic comedy gives up its pleasures too easily. The story of a young couple on the verge of marriage--which weaves through five punchy vignettes about loves lost and found in Beijing--is a breezy march, full of bright colors and big smiles. A sharp, funny script gives the couples' passions some teeth, and Zhang avoids drawing easily encapsulated conclusions. But the sprightly portraits remain too sweet to be truly affecting--a welcome break from the heavier fare that dominated the festival, yet a light confection nonetheless.The most intriguing Asian offerings at the festival managed to combine both--sweetness and a genuinely haunting sadness, charm and heft. Indonesian Garin Nugroho's Leaf on a Pillow and Cambodian Rithy Panh's One Fine Evening After the War appear to share little other than geographical proximity. The former is a Salaam Bombay! set in Yogyakarta, acted by dignified producer Christine Hakim and actual kids from the chaotic streets of Java's cultural capital. The latter, the story of a doomed romance between a soldier returned from the war against the Khmer Rouge and a Phnom Penh bar girl, makes no pretensions to cinema verite despite Panh's background as a documentary filmmaker.Yet each draws its strength from a similar source--the pain and beauty of its setting. The films are no less melodrama than Black Angel or the garish Geisha House, and Leaf especially borders on the preachy at times. But the streets of Yogya and Phnom Penh come across as classically wounded landscapes--tragic surroundings that call for thick, unrepentant emotions. Bathed in golden, earthy light, both movies avoid the clean lines and sharp angles favored by Ishii; their chaotic streetscapes are a jumble of tropical colors, unkempt and noisy. The hubbub in turn prevents the two narratives from settling into cliche. What tortures Panh's sympathetic lead characters is precisely the fact that they cannot live a normal love story: their romance blooms on a river that, as the ex-soldier notes, once ran red with blood. (Nothing belonged to us, not even our love, his consort laments operatically.) That undercurrent of barely suppressed violence disrupts the films as surely as it does the characters, rendering each lush image somewhat sinister and each melodramatic moment entirely unreliable. Directors like Ishii might have benefited from a similar edge, which comes as part of the territory for Nugroho and Panh. But one can more easily forgive a failed movie than the flawed societies depicted in their bittersweet films.  |    |  3