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Wednesday, Aug. 25, 1999

'trancemission' drops out in overdrive

When I first read Kafka's "The Trial" in high school, I thought that it might be an Eastern European "1984": a cautionary tale of totalitarianism triumphant in a dark future society where one's innermost thoughts are property of the state.

As it turned out, though, it was Kafka, not the state, that had entered the collective unconsciousness and returned with stories that one didn't read so much as dream.

Of course, Kafka was of his place and time; a Joseph K could not have appeared in the literary nightmares of Edgar Allen Poe.

Yet there was an inner logic to his vision that transcended early 20th-century Prague. Convicted of a crime he has no memory of committing, condemned to wander eternally through an impenetrable bureaucratic maze, Joseph K may be an absurd, pathetic figure, but he is also a universal one. In today's world, where we are flooded by information of increasingly dubious reliability, where faceless entities ceaselessly monitor and manipulate us to their own obscure organizational ends, his trial is still ours.

Hideki Takahashi's debut feature "trancemission" might be described as an updating of "The Trial" for a new millennium. Like Kafka's classic it unfolds in an ominous dreamscape, but one set in a soulless near future bathed in a muzzy white light, not plunged into a Kafkaesque gloom. Its hero, a futures trader named Matsudo (Jun Murakami), is a Joseph K-like Everyman, though with a better haircut.

Takahashi, a music video director whose client list includes Mr. Children, T.M. Revolution, Glay and The Yellow Monkey, has made a film that, while incredibly dynamic, immensely clever and impeccably cool, is more a display of the director's virtuosity than an exploration of its hero's inner struggles.

Like many of the pop acts that Takahashi films, "trancemission" is in extroverted overdrive, mercilessly generating sensory overload. It's movie as mosh pit; its visual rush is exhilarating, but finally exhausting.

Even so, I can't dismiss "trancemission" as a video clip with ambitions. Takahashi has not only filmed sexy visuals, but created a vision of an infinitely fragmented, constantly invaded consciousness no longer in control of its own thoughts or certain of its own identity. It's a frightening vision, but one that is becoming ever more familiar as we merge, willingly or not, into the digital bit stream rising around us.

The film begins with Matsudo hard at work in the trading room, doing deals in code language designed to protect company secrets. He looks competent, content, in control. Then his boss, a gray-haired fatherly type with a sinister aura of power, asks Matsudo to accept a "recommendation" -- to do what, he doesn't say.

Matsudo, sensing danger, asks for time to think -- and the boss's smiling face clouds over with anger. The next thing he knows, his mind is being attacked by strange, menacing images, and he is collapsing in the office corridor.

Unconscious, he is hustled into a waiting car by unknown hands as memories of his wife, his boss and his own inert form on the floor flash through his brain.

When he awakes he is in what looks to be a dark, vaulted lecture room, where he is questioned by a grim-visaged foreigner (Roger Allen) whose title is shocho (police chief). He is given a bizarre word association test by a blonde, shades-wearing keibu (police inspector).

When Matsudo identifies one of the symbols on the keibu's flash cards as "the organization," he is seized, strapped to an operating table and subjected to impromptu brain surgery. This, as it turns out, is only the beginning.

What do these people, including the beautiful, implacable nurse (Chiharu Kawai) who directs his "treatment" and the three long-haired dudes (The Yellow Monkey) who give him virtual brain massages, really want from Matsudo? To brainwash him into being their agent, it turns out.

Even after Matsudo is returned to his company to act on their commands, relayed directly to his cerebral cortex by the nurse, he continues to cling to his old identity. Caught seeking help, he is dragged back to the operating table again for more "treatments," including a metal mask whose design is reminiscent of African tribal masks and the torture instruments of medieval inquisitors.

As the boundary between illusion and reality begins to dissolve, Matsudo begins to suspect everyone of being in cahoots to steal his soul: his boss, his wife (Natsuo Ishido) and even a friendly electrician who, out of the blue, claims to be his ally against "them."

Whom can he trust? Is he doomed to being a remote-controlled spy or can he find his life again?

Though the storyline is a straight paranoid fantasy, Takahashi develops an atmosphere of tension and dread with a blizzard of cuts, some at almost subliminal speeds, all to a techno score by Hirohito Otsubo that drives sonic nails into the skull.

The problem comes in the third act when, having subjected Matsudo to torments that would reduce all but the Terminator to quivering mush, the film faces the question of what to do with him. Allow him to triumph? But this is not Arnold Schwarzenegger we've got here. How can Matsudo credibly overcome an organization that has wired itself into his neural cells?

Instead of supplying a satisfactory answer, "trancemission" deliquesces into a six-minute riot of sound and imagery -- i.e., a super music video.

A cop-out? Not exactly. The entire film, we see, has been building to this explosion.

A catharsis? Not really, but nightmares seldom have one, do they? One simply wakes in a cold sweat, when the horror becomes too much to endure.

Walking out of the theater after "trancemission," however, I was not mopping moisture, but waiting for the throbbing in my head to subside.

"trancemission" is playing at Haiyuza Talkie Night.

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