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Saturday, Aug. 21, 1999

Summertime whip for decadent souls

"Siberia" is a litmus test. If you're over 30 but secretly believe that you can beat any vacant-eyed whippersnapper at push-ups any old day of the week, then drop everything and head for the theater now. "Siberia" will tell if you really are as young as you think or just an old fogey with muscles.

Should you fall into the former category, the movie will move you, jar you, possibly cause a burning skin rash and an overwhelming desire to quit your job. You will find yourself asking this question: Why slave away in an office, in Tokyo for pete's sakes, when an ocean away is another world? A world (as "Siberia" will inform you) full of forbidden pleasures, forbidden stimulants, where all the graffiti on the walls seem to blend into a single word: carnal.

At this point you could be thinking, now hold on a minute. Isn't this a movie about Siberia? Last you heard, the only things carnal in Siberia were wolves. There's a simple explanation: "Siberia" is really about Amsterdam, a k a the coolest city on earth and hippie paradise. If you will recall, all the right people (real and fictional) go to Amsterdam: John and Yoko got into bed at the Amsterdam Hilton and threatened never to leave. Kate Moss and Johnny Depp once rented an apartment there and then broke up. John Travolta in "Pulp Fiction" had just returned from Amsterdam, and when he told this to Uma Thurman, her reply was, "Oh yeah, I go there once a year to chill out."

Despite this enviable backdrop and despite it being midsummer, the characters in "Siberia" keep yearning for Siberia. They want to throw away Amsterdam pleasures -- legalized soft drugs, porn shops, prostitution and sex whenever -- for a land which Stalin once described as "the ideal whip for decadent souls." In the meantime, they do their best to soak up all the aforementioned pleasures while they last. This built-in contradiction is what keeps the film hopping -- also the probability that the entire cast and staff were stoned.

Totally and unabashedly immoral throughout, there is not one redeeming moment, one little incident to save the day and make you think there's some good in everyone. Apparently, no one in Amsterdam has ever heard of this adage. In fact, judging from the movie, the city is like the artsy sub-division of Sodom and Gomorrah, but OK'd by God.

Wandering this wonder city are a pair of Amsterdam-good-for-nothings. Hugo (Hugo Metsers) is the smooth and suave one though his middle name is probably Scumbag, Sleaze, B.S. or all of the above. Goof (Roeland Fernhout) is, as his name indicates, more shy and retains a shred of innocence. The two have a summertime scam in which they pick up backpacker tourists available in droves, sleep with them, then rob them blind. To add injury to insult, they tear the first pages out of the girls' passports "as a memento" and tack it onto their closet doors.

But the two meet their match in Lara (Vlatka Simac), no stranger to scams and given to tossing off outrageous remarks in the most placid of ways, "I get it, you're Nice Boy and you're F**k Boy." Goof falls for her as soon as she admits to being a native of Siberia -- for him, Lara is romance carrying a large backpack. He invites her into the household and graciously refrains from sleeping with her. Hugo becomes edgy since Lara's presence upsets his camaraderie with Goof and casts a huge shadow on their once carefree lifestyle. He can't wait for Lara to leave and to speed things up, he sleeps with her on the sly. Lara is several cuts above either guy, playing the field and lying to both. All the while of course, she has her eye on the ill-gotten stash hidden in the closet.

Riding to the queasy sound track by Junky XL, "Siberia" accelerates almost out of control and then lands with a plop on a delightfully unpredictable ending. Director Robert Jan Westdijk is fearless when it comes to turning the dials on sleaze and craze -- he seems strangely liberated from the subtext of values that plague the rest of the world. Nothing is profane but then again, nothing is sacred.

The platonic love affair between Goof and Lara is recounted on the same level as Lara and Hugo's romanceless wrestling matches and the secret (but obvious) love Hugo feels for Goof. All three relationships involve a lot of stripping, cussing and dancing with what can only be described as Amsterdam frenzy. Now is this a real summertime movie or what?

"Siberia" (released in Japan as "Ams -- Siberia") is playing at the Cine Amuse in Shibuya. Dialogue in English and Dutch.

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