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Tuesday, May 9, 2000

'MONDAY'

The lost and found weekend


New directors need something unique, in terms of talent, technique or theme, if they are to distinguish themselves from the digicam-wielding hordes. Mere competence doesn't do the trick any more. Sabu, an actor who turned director in 1996 with "D.A.N.G.A.N. Runner," became an immediate stand-out for two reasons.

First was his name, which appealed to foreign festival programmers everywhere, for not only its nostalgic reference to the Indian star of those old Hollywood jungle epics, but its blessed pronounceability (compared with such tongue-twisters as Hirokazu Kore'eda and Takashi Mi'ike).

Second were his chase scenes, which became the dramatic engines of film after film. Sabu designed them much the way Buster Keaton did, with wacky ingenuity and blithe indifference to the laws of probability. Also, like the director of "Sherlock Jr." and "The General," Sabu was not just manufacturing laughs, but making statements about the arbitrariness of fate and the absurdity of life.

But whereas Keaton preferred to slowly accelerate to a bang-up finish, Sabu slammed the pedal to the metal and kept it there. Also, as befitting a young Japanese director in the recessionary '90s, his vision was bleaker and more violent than his American senpai's. But as terrific as his first acts were, Sabu had trouble keeping his frantic pace, as exhilaration gave way to exhausted genre cliches.

In his fourth film, "Monday," Sabu finally gives the chase a rest, while continuing to explore familiar themes. But while being distinctly Sabu in its one-damn-thing-after-another structure, this comedy of errors about a salaryman's disastrous weekend is, in its dark comic style and inventive nonlinear storytelling, more Danny Boyle than Buster Keaton. It brilliantly realizes the promise of his previous work and happens to be all-fours-in-the-air funny. In its third act, "Monday" threatens to falter -- a chronic Sabu problem -- but recovers with a twist equal in its cleverness and rightness to anything in "Trainspotting." With "Monday," Sabu may well climb out of his festivalfavorite niche and into the audience-favorite mainstream.

Sabu regular Shin'ichi Tsutsumi ("Postman Blues," "Unlucky Monkey") stars as Takagi, a salaryman who wakes up hungover one Monday in a hotel bedroom with no memory of how he got there -- or where his weekend went. Then he discovers a packet of salts, the kind given to mourners at funerals, and the fog lifts for a moment. He remembers attending the wake of a young colleague and being inadvertently responsible for the horribly funny way it ended. No need to detail this comic disaster -- only to say that, by clipping the wrong wire, Takagi gives his colleague a send-off unique in the history of film, if not fireworks.

The rest of "Monday" segues between the past and the present, as Takagi pieces together more fragments of his lost weekend. As his past actions, from the idiotic to the deadly, begin to impinge on his increasingly desperate present, the film moves toward its explosive, if surreal, finale.

After the wake, a shaky Takagi meets his girlfriend (Naomi Nishida) at a coffee shop. He tries to tell her his story, but she barely lets him get a word in edgewise. When he finally blurts it out -- and dissolves into giggles at its absurdity -- she storms out in disgust. Takagi, we see, not only has a big communications problem with women, but a seriously strange personality.

After this fiasco, he winds up in a bar where he encounters, in quick succession, a gay fortuneteller (Hideki Noda) with an interest in more than his palm and a woman (Yasuko Matsuyuki) whose smoky beauty and slinky sheath dress make him steam at the ears. Unfortunately, he also attracts the attention of her man (Toru Yamamoto), a snarling gang boss who invites Takagi to drink at his club. Under the glare of the boss's permanently pissed-off subordinates, the poor simp can't refuse.

By now, however, Takagi is thoroughly soused and beginning to lose his Mr. Nice Guy inhibitions. At the club, he dances an impassioned disco solo, a la John Travolta, under the stony gazes of the gangsters and club hostesses, then grabs his host's lady friend and performs a sensual pas des deux. His host is starting to lose his carefully studied cool. After the dance, he invites Takagi upstairs for a private chat. It ends with one dead yakuza and Takagi walking out of the club, shotgun in hand, for a date with destiny.

Sabu's previous films all had similar small-actions-have-big-consequences plots -- but in "Monday" the elements click into place with a new precision and effectiveness. I found myself laughing on the beat, an experience I hadn't had with a Japanese film since Koki Mitani's superb, if sitcom-ish, "Radio no Jikan," but Sabu's brand of comedy is drier, far drier.

Also, "Monday" delves deeper into not only the psychology (or pathology) of the salaryman, but the eternal tug of war between fate and free will, peaceful hopes and violent realities. Though Takagi initially seems to be the helpless plaything of malevolent gods, his tribulations force him to assert, define and justify himself.

While abandoning the comforts of native fatalism (what might be called the shoganai ethic), Sabu also rejects the "zero to hero" formula of Hollywood. There is something warming in Takagi's emergence from corporate mouse to outlaw lion, roaring his defiance at the guardians of the law, but there is also something ridiculous. He remains, from beginning to end, irredeemably and hilariously weird. A nerd triumphant, but a nerd for all that.

"Monday" is playing at Cine Amuse East/West.


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