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Wednesday, Aug. 18, 1999

Almost blue, almost cool, but not quite

Hong Kong-based cinematographer Christopher Doyle, one of the most original (and rambunctious) visual stylists of the '90s, releases his directorial debut this month, a rough and rambling work called "Away With Words." But in tracing this project's genesis, the figure of Takeshi Kaneshiro looms heavily.

With Kaneshiro ubiquitous now in Tokyo commercials and TV dramas, it's easy to forget that just a few years ago, he was unknown in Japan, with a career as a mildly successful "idol" singer in Taiwan. Then he was cast in Wong Kar-wai's groundbreaking "Chungking Express," and its follow-up "Fallen Angels." The surprise success of these ultrahip and generation-defining Hong Kong films led Kaneshiro, at best a cute face with a mild ability for mugging his ways through scenes, to become a major idol in Japan.

Credit for this can largely be laid at the feet of Doyle, Wong's regular cinematographer, whose deft and free-form visual pyrotechnics largely fashioned the "look" that made those films -- a rhythmic sense that was utterly sympatico with urban Asia, and an eye for off-handed, funky-but-chic glamour.

It was no large leap of logic for the tarento-industry types here in Tokyo to start thinking about how they would appropriate this Hong Kong cool. First up was designer Takeo Kikuchi, who commissioned Wong to make a commercial that looked like a film, starring model/indie film actor Tadanobu Asano. When Doyle mentioned to the right people that he'd like to direct as well, the pieces quickly fit into place, and now we have "Away With Words," with the too-cool-to-emote Asano sleepwalking through the lead while dreaming of being the next Kaneshiro.

The plot, such as there is, is bare, and draws on that old Wong Kar-wai wellspring, memory. Wandering Okinawan expat Asano, who apparently has decided to call a deep-blue sofa in a Hong Kong gay bar home, has too much memory; his opposite, the bar's okama proprietor Kevin (Kevin Reynolds), has too little. Asano remembers all his childhood memories in precise detail (most of which involve being berated by elder women and sisters, for all you Freudians), to the extent that they interfere with the present. So he does nothing but lie around the bar mumbling to himself, like Mr. Crazy Streetperson.

Kevin, meanwhile, has drink to blame for his dilemma, constantly waking up from benders with no clue as to where he is or how he got there, pawing at policemen for dates, and generally pissing off everyone with his irresponsible behavior, which is only just leavened by a rapier sense of humor. Stuck between these two damaged boys is a girl with a hopeless mother complex, Susie (Xu Meijing), an o-koge who cleans up their messes, feeds them and drags them out of their stupors.

That's about it, story-wise; the rest of the film is filled with the cast egregiously mugging it up for the camera. Typical is an extended scene in which Asano plunges around in the ocean in a suit and tie, for no apparent reason.

There's a fine line between improvisatory filmmaking and home-video-style silliness, and "Away With Words" is way more than one toke over that line. One gets the sense that such obtuse and deliberate idiosyncrasy is an end in itself, ingenuously pretending that there's something behind this cheap facade.

Emblematic of this is Asano, who's merely playing "Asano," the character he's established in so many films already: brooding, confused, lost inside his own head, but cute. His reticence is supposed to imply depth, but seems a poor cover for vapidity, an easy pose of angst.

Asano got his start in commercials, modeling and TV dramas, and it shows. Like Masatoshi Nagase before him, a need to always look "cool" seems to be what's driving his career choices. Certainly, with the exception of his truncated appearance in "Maboroshi no Hikari," little acting ability has been detected. The atrociously cartoonish "Samehada Otoko" is only the most recent example. (Never mind his work with Wong Kar-wai wannabe director Shunji Iwai, which is pretentious, faux-art filmmaking that involves lots of CM-derived visual styling, with zero believable emotional content or characterization.)

"Away With Words" is flawed in many ways, but one can't help but suspect that the commercial decisions that shaped it contributed to its downfall. First, since Japanese producers are backing the film, a Japanese "name" star is required -- hence, Asano. Next, secure the Chinese market by casting pop idol Xu Meijing, who has been topping the Hong Kong and Singapore charts. Then work another angle by including a soundtrack single by Misa Joey, which is prominently included in the film in a throwaway sequence that reeks of music video.

Also, since this is Doyle's "personal" film, he got to cast his drinking buddy Kevin Reynolds, who plays himself (and my guess is he'd be a lot funnier if you were actually getting drunk with him). So thanks to this series of decisions, we're left with a film with three lead characters -- Japanese, Chinese, English -- none of whom share a common tongue. This leads to nearly zero communication and a lot of solipsistic monologues.

Such alienation has been the subject of Wong Kar-wai's work as well, but a film like "Chungking Express" has the lines and insight to back up the look. Doyle's wild, improvisatory work is effective there because it's focused, synergising with the film's themes and mood to create a cohesive whole.

In a recent interview with The Japan Times, Doyle casually admitted, regarding his career as a director, "let's face it: Other people have much better stories to tell, and they tell it with much more skill and power."

Only too true, I'm afraid. As we've seen in recent Doyle collaborations with other directors -- "Motel Cactus," "First Love," "Temptress Moon" -- his ability to make a film look gorgeous is not enough to save it from aimless direction.

Ditto for "Away With Words."

"Away With Words" is playing at Cine Amuse East/West

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