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Saturday, July 29, 2000


Stories of the London underground

"Tube Tales" is a new take on an old, old story: the subway. In Paris, it's le metro, in Tokyo it's chikatetsu but in London where the underground railway was built earlier than any other city in the world (1863) the trains are called "tubes." This is because the train roofs are rounded and look like a tube, which strikes me as both apt and cute.

And apt and cute is what "Tube Tales" is all about. Subways in the movies have generally had a bad rep, depicted as subterranean coffinlike vehicles where the worst can and does happen, with alarming frequency. The cars are smelly, defiled by graffiti, and one is either seated next to a bag lady who last washed in 1985 or being hassled by panhandlers. That sort of thing.

Tunnel Visions -- Carmen Ejogo and Hans Matheson
Rachel Weisz in "Tube Tales"

"Tube Tales" ignores this aspect of subway travel and concentrates on the whimsical, the poignant, the wickedly funny. Comprised of nine short stories made by a diverse corp of directors that include Bob Hoskins, Ewan McGregor and Jude Law, "Tube Tales" showcases British talent and British mentality at its very best. Balancing a low budget with abundant ideas (the stories were chosen from among 3,000 entries in Time Out magazine), wry wit with droll sentimentality, "Tube Tales" also juggles internationally famous actors (Ray Winstone, Rachel Weisz) with the virtually unknown. The result is a ride through London whose force pushes you back into your seat and sends adrenaline coursing through your veins in the way a chikatetsu never does.

It also pokes fun at the London tubes, for which Londoners seem to harbor love-hate feelings. On the one hand, the tube is well managed, clean and safe. The transport system is a living, working museum piece: hardwood floors in the cars, velvet seats with armrests. Many of the escalators are also wood, and the stations themselves boast some of the finest brick and tile work in the Western world. On the other hand, the tube is wildly temperamental. Its antiquated charm comes at a price to the passengers -- it is now the most expensive subway system in Europe (about 260 yen one way). Constant repairs and refurbishments cause stations to shut down without much notice. Trains are delayed as a matter of course and no one seems to know when any of them will arrive. Still, Londoners have a great affection for the Tube, or so the production notes say. If these stories are anything to go by, it's no wonder.

This isn't to say that "Tube Tales" is nice and sweet with an uplifting moral at the end. That would be utterly un-British. Even in cases where the story is just plain "nice" (an old man rescues a bird caught in a commuter's turban, hurries with it outside the station and sets it free), the filmmaker (Jude Law) couldn't resist having his bit of fun with the title: "Bird in Hand." If straightforwardness is more your line, try "Horny," an eight-minute psychological hell in the life of a middle-aged city gent (Tom Bell) who stares at a seductive redhead (Denise van Outen) in a tube car and discovers that his body is reacting out of his control. Being the perfect gent, there's nothing to do but keep a "stiff" upper lip, amidst the looks and giggles and "Mummy, what's that?" erupting all around him.

For a more spiritual experience, try "Bone," depicting a trombone player in love with a woman whose photograph he sees tacked onto the ticket booth of a tube station. The story has no dialogue, just the few bars of melody the player works on during his tube rides to and from work, interspersed with fantasies of what would happen if he ever came face to face with this dream woman. Ewan McGregor directed this one and though he reportedly said at the beginning of the project: "A movie about the London tube? Never going to work," this small tale of longing and loneliness is the most effectively romantic of the lot. Nicholas Tennant, who plays the sad-faced trombone player, is McGregor's uncle and himself a veteran stage actor.

My personal favorite is "Mouth," of which director Armando Iannuci says, "I wanted to make something simple and low-taste." Which he does to perfection. On Christmas Eve, an attractive woman (Daniela Nardini) comes into a tube car full of party-goers. Immediately, every man on board starts to fantasize about life with this woman, marrying her and raising a family. The other femmes catch on and fantasize about putting her in a hotdog and taking a big bite. Before anyone could act on their dreams, however, the woman suddenly vomits. Yes, vomits. So graphically it would put John Waters (who also has a thing about bad taste) to shame.

Well, at least the tube didn't suddenly stop in the middle of the tunnel.

"Tube Tales" opens Aug. 5 at Cine Quint in Shibuya.

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