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Tuesday, Aug. 10, 1999

Strangers on the crossroads of life

Each generation has its own way of telling love stories on the screen. What is supremely romantic to one strikes the next as supremely corny (until it begins to fondlylook back, as Meg Ryan's character does in "Sleepless in Seattle," at "An Affair to Remember" and other genre classics).

In "Shady Grove," a film about a young woman's obsessive pursuit of a lover who has abandoned her, Shinji Aoyama seems to be pushing the envelope of the new. Instead of soaring strings, he uses composer Isao Yamada's ambient grooves. Instead of hot, gaudy Technicolor, he prefers the soft, muted shades of cinematographer Masaki Tamura, captured with that trendiest of tools for the zero-budget indie filmmaker, the digital camcorder.

But as cutting edge as a love story may strive to be, it is still going to follow certain narrative arcs that have been hard-wired into movies since Lillian Gish was trudging through snowdrifts in "Way Down East."

The one Aoyama has chosen for "Shady Grove" is among the hoariest -- the woman who pines and suffers for Mr. Wrong, while Mr. Right waits in the wings. But Aoyama, who is more plugged into the Gen-X zeitgeist than nearly any other under-40 director around, tells this story with a style and attitude that are impeccably fashionable, emotionally middle-distanced. At the same time, he is finely attuned to nuances of mood and highly personal in his means of expressing them. One can imagine him, in another incarnation, as a DJ at one of the hipper clubs, laying down grooves for an excruciatingly cool clientele.

Aoyama, however, is not simply riffing on this material from the heights of irony; he is at heart a romantic, who believes in the power of love to transform, for better or worse. I became impatient with his heroine for not seeing sooner that Mr. Wrong is a hopeless case -- a conclusion I arrived at 10 minutes into the movie -- but I couldn't deny the reality of her obsession. She is not just indulging a perverse whim, but acting on desires that are humanly fundamental, if not always PC.

Rika (Urara Awata) is a 24-year-old OL in love with Ono (Tomohiro Sekiguchi), an elite salaryman at a major trading company. Six months into their relationship, however, Ono is feeling restive -- so much so that he wants to break it off. Rika, however, won't give him a chance, dragging him to a wine shop just as he is about to make his big announcement. While she is selecting the right vintage, he decides to make tracks, leaving her holding the bottle -- and the remnants of her shattered illusions.

She returns to an apartment that looks, with its soft glowing lights and New Age bric-a-brac, to be the abode of an artsy craftsy bohemian. Feeling abandoned and abused, she downs the wine, punches the number of strangers on her cell phone and tells them her tale of woe. Most brush her off as a wacko, but one listens intently and tells her what her heart wants to hear -- that Ono loves her, in his inscrutable own way, but needs more space. Relieved, she drops off to sleep, with the voice of this sympathetic stranger saying soothing words into her ear.

He is Kono (Arata), a publicist for a film distributor, who has come to his own personal crossroads -- rather than accept a transfer to Osaka, he has decided to quit the company. When Rika calls, he is writing his letter of resignation. Unlike the insensitive Ono, he is deeply in tune with Rika's feelings, drawing a portrait of her on his laptop during their conversation that bears an amazing resemblance to its subject.

Obviously, these two are meant for each other, but will they get together -- or will Rika self-destruct in her pursuit of her disappearing lover?

As played by Awata, who made a brilliant debut in Jun Ichikawa's "Tokyo Kyodai" (1995), Rika is not simply a seduced and abandoned victim, but a complex mixture of romantic idealist and other-directed traditionalist. She wants to marry Ono not only because of his long-legged good looks, but also because he would make an excellent heir.

The reason for their break-up, it turns out, is Rika's insistence that Ono become her parents' adopted son -- the traditional method for passing on the family name when no natural sons are available. Ono, however, resists -- and ends up taking another lover.

Determined to learn why she has been jilted so suddenly, Rika hires a nerdy-looking detective in a porkpie hat (Ken Mitsuishi) to trail Ono. His finding: Rika is not quite the innocent victim she considers herself to be. "Unconsciously you want to please your parents," he tells her. What are her unconscious feelings toward Kono?

He knows what his are for her. After she gives him a photo she took of an idyllic wood -- it had caught his eye on his first visit to her apartment -- he begins to dream of entering it and finding Rika there, waiting for him.

It also seems that Aoyama himself, after plunging into the dark side of the human spirit in such previous films as the hyperviolent "Helpless" and the black comic "Wild Life," wants to enter that wood as well. Perhaps his search for bliss is what gives "Shady Grove" its New Millennial mood. It ends with a message of hope -- that despite the isolation of modern life, we can still make the kinds of connections all the ISDN lines in the world will never begin to equal. All it takes is a bit of absurd courage -- and a prank phone call.

"Shady Grove" is playing at Eurospace in Shibuya.

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