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Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2000

'SUNDAY DRIVE'

Take next exit for the Zeitgeist


Why are so many new Japanese independent films so low-key? One could argue that they are simply reflecting the Zeitgeist of a chilled-out younger generation, to whom the political passions and personal quests of their Boomer elders are as alien as bell bottoms and love beads. But if Hisashi Saito's "Sunday Drive" is any indication, this anomie -- which regards even personal catastrophe with a shoganai shrug -- is more general than we Boomers might have believed.

While commenting on the affectlessness around us, "Sunday Drive" also wants to be a deadpan comedy. It is, however, too self-satisfied to be genuinely funny -- or perhaps I am just an out-of-touch oldster who doesn't get the joke of a putative murderer and his victim's lover fleeing from the scene of the crime as though they were on a weekend jaunt to the country after a hard week on the job.

Nonetheless, director Saito, whose first feature was the 1997 "French Dressing," injects a wistful charm and longing into his story of love on the run, as well as capturing a generational mood with casual acuity. As do so many young directors under the influence of Takeshi Kitano, Saito shies from explanation, preferring minimalist suggestion, but he gets his point across: We live in strange times, in which so much is permitted, but so much remains unspoken -- or unfelt.

Yui (Miako Tadano) and Shinji (Takumi Tanji) are young live-in lovers who work part-time at a neighborhood video store. But the store's middle-aged manager, Okamura (Shinya Tsukamoto) has a crush on Yui, which he confesses one day while getting ready for a staff barbecue. Also, that evening Shinji tells the manager he has been cheating on Yui -- and begs him not to tell her.

Then, one startling jump-cut later, Shinji is on the floor, his head in the middle of a spreading pool of blood and Okamura is standing over him, with a disquieting look of satisfaction on his face. Is it an accident -- or murder? We begin to suspect the latter when, instead of calling for an ambulance or the police, Okamura drives off with Yui in a mini-van he has borrowed from Shinji's brother.

Also, instead of resisting or demanding an explanation, Yui accompanies the man who may be her lover's killer as nonchalantly as though he were taking her to their planned barbecue, not fleeing the scene of the crime. Meanwhile, Okamura behaves less like a frantic fugitive from justice than a middle-aged man desperately infatuated with a younger woman -- and trying not to embarrass himself by looking too obvious about it. Shinji's demise -- and his own fate -- seem the farthest things from his mind.

When this odd couple arrives at the barbecue site (a strange choice of destination after what has just occurred, but no stranger than the rest of the movie), Yui makes friends with a little girl who pops up out of nowhere, apparently another lost soul on the road. Together Okamura, Yui and the girl enjoy a meal in the great outdoors, look to all the world like just another happy family. That night, Okamura and Yui make love in the van. What, we wonder, can these people be thinking?

Saito's resolute reluctance to tell us, or otherwise clear away the fog that surrounds his characters' motives and behavior, is at once irritating and intriguing. Irritating because his subversion of narrative and emotional logic is programmatic and even silly, like a director who thinks he is rebelling against cinematic convention by filming night scenes in natural light -- thus forcing his audiences to watch vague shapes shifting on a black screen. Intriguing because, for all his Kitano-esque pretensions, Saito is onto something about the nature of Japanese society in the new millennium, a society whose traditional reluctance to ask questions or make waves is devolving into something resembling moral catatonia.

Shinya Tsukamoto, an accomplished director in his own right ("Tetsuo," "Tetsuo II," "Tokyo Fist") as well as an actor with a long list of credits (including appearances in his films), delivers a strong, if untypically subdued, performance that gives emotional grounding to the film's strained comic premise. (As well he should -- he is also the film's producer.)

As Yui, rising indie star Miako Tadano (whose credits include Saito's "French Dressing" and Tsukamoto's new "Bullet Ballet") seems disengaged from the proceedings. In key scenes her eyes dart about as though she were looking for a clue to her character -- and failing to find it (not that she seems to care). Even so, Tadano projects a girl-on-the-street persona that makes her an apt generational stand-in.

"Sunday Drive" may not be much of a movie -- it plays like a student video short writ large -- but as a cinematic road map to a generation's emotional landscape, it is accurate enough to send small, chill shivers of recognition down the spine. A fine way to spend a Sunday indeed.

"Sunday Drive" starts Feb. 26 at Eurospace in Shibuya.


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