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Tuesday, June 6, 2000


A walk on the nasty and violent side

Takashi Ishii loves to see women suffer -- and triumph. Thus the rapes in film after film (Shinobu Otake was the victim in "Shindemoii," Kimiko Yo in "Nude no Yoru," Maiko Kawakami in "Tenshi no Harawata: Akai Senko," Yumi Takigawa and Yui Natsukawa in "Gonin 2"). Thus the scenes of revenge, in which women kick their male tormentors silly or blast them into oblivion. (Reona Hazuki did both with ruthless efficiency in the first installment of the aptly titled "Kuroi Tenshi" series.)

This mix of exploitation and entitlement (if you consider films about avenging angels with assault weapons as "entitlement") is hardly unusual in the Japanese film business, but Ishii takes it to new levels of obsession -- and art. Though he may be making product for the video shelves, Ishii is clearly in love with his work and superlatively talented at making us feel the heat of his fixations. This is not always a pleasant experience, but when Ishii is at the top of his form, it is an undeniably powerful one. Think Brian De Palma, but of "Body Double," not "Mission to Mars."

In "Freeze Me," Ishii reveals yet another side of his artistic personality -- a fascination with horror and a blackly humorous, flesh-crawling way of expressing it. The obvious comparisons are with David Lynch's walks on the weird side, but the core of this film about a woman's ultimate nightmare -- gangbangers with the persistence and implacability of Terminators -- remains unmistakably Ishii. One wants to say, "There he goes again," but instead of simply repeating a formula, he uncuts expectations to sensual, sickening and memorable effect.

His heroine, Chihiro (Harumi Inoue), whom we first meet getting uproariously drunk with her office mates and stumbling back to her apartment afterward, impresses as ditzy and trashy -- i.e., a deserving victim in Japanese movie terms. But Inoue, a former idol whose skinhead look for a Kishin Shinoyama nude photo book brought her an outlaw notoriety, also projects a street-girl cunning and toughness.

Chihiro may have made the worst possible choices in men at one point in her life, but this O.L. with the boyishly cut, copper-colored hair and cute, if punkish-looking, face is not about to let her past mistakes ruin her present, which is happier than she once dared hope. She has a job she likes (working overtime at her computer, she looks as absorbed as she once might have been playing video arcade games) and a man she wants to marry (a goateed colleague who is good-looking and nice, if a bit slow).

Then, suddenly, it all falls apart. One day she spies a man riffling through the mailboxes in her apartment building. He is beautiful, this man, with a face like a deep-tanned Dionysius, but he is also, she senses, a predator, whose mocking smile and avid movements inspire fear. Then she flashes on a moment in her past that she has been trying to put behind her for five years -- a rape by three men on a snowy day in her native Tohoku. Her unexpected visitor was one of them.

To her horror, he spots her, chases her and forces his way into her apartment. With a terrible insouciance, he plays the long-lost lover and, when she fights him and tries to escape, responds with violence, intimidation and, his trump card, stills taken from a video of her rape that he begins stuffing in her neighbors' mail slots.

Her unwanted guest, Hirokawa (Kazuki Kitamura), tells her that her other two rapists are on their way for a reunion. The occasion: their leader, a gangster named Baba (Naoto Takenaka), has just been released from prison and is eager to take up where he left off. "We'll have a four-way sex party to celebrate his release," says Hirokawa, but as Chihiro soon discovers, he is not about to wait for his turn.

Even worse is yet to come, however. Her boyfriend (Shunsuke Matsuoka) pays an unexpected visit and leaves in anger and confusion when Hirokawa makes an appearance and tells him about the rape. Not content to destroy her personal life, Hirokawa next shows up at her office and creates a scene designed to get her fired.

By this time, the audience is aching for the catharsis of Hirokawa's violent end -- few characters in movies have more richly deserved one -- and Ishii delivers, with a murder that makes the shower scene in "Psycho" look like a Teletubbies romp. That is not all, however: Chihiro now has a body to dispose of. Time is pressing (the other rapists might arrive any moment), and none of the standard methods seem possible. Then she notices the big empty space inside her fridge . . .

Despite the grotesque comedy in Chihiro's unusual choice of hiding places, Ishii's primary aim is not laughs. Still and silent, Hirokawa has become, as Chihiro notes with delight and awe, ethereally beautiful. In life a monster, in death he has become a frozen specimen of ideal manhood -- as well as a perfect listener. Now that her life has been returned to zero, she decides to keep him. Every girl needs someone she can talk to, at least until the next visitor comes calling.

Kazuki Kitamura, who displayed a similar feral energy and charisma as a gangster in Rokuro Mochizuki's "Minazuki," plays Hirokawa to chill perfection. Shingo Tsurumi and Naoto Takenaka are also creep-inducing as the other two rapists, but their moral monsters have a familiarity (Takenaka has been playing variations of his for years) that lessens their impact. It doesn't help that Chihiro uses the same basic murder method for all three.

Boiled down, "Freeze Me" is the Three Pigs story with the numbers reversed. There is, however, nothing childish about Ishii's vision of evil, which is at once universal and specific. His demons would be familiar to Thomas Aquinas, but their attitudes and actions reflect the realities of today's Japan, in which stalkers too often prey unhindered and unmentioned.

Though hardly a social reformer, Ishii sees more clearly than many of his directorial colleagues, with their winking indulgence of the male id and ego, how that evil, in the absence of any countervailing force, has penetrated to the heart of Japanese society. Chihiro's solution is still extreme, but her worst fears have become all too common.

"Freeze Me" is playing at Cine Libre Ikebukuro, (03) 3590-2126.

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