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Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2000

On a cinematic road to nowhere

Gaga's Movie Storm project is one of those simple-but-brilliant ideas that may seem obvious, but are all too rare in the Japanese movie business. Now that digital cameras are all the rage, reasoned executive producer Hidehiro Ito, why not use them to make a series of low-budget films? The stroke of brilliance was to hand the digicams to, not only beginners for whom they are the first technical step up the ladder, but veteran directors who boast festival and box-office winners in their resumes, but chafe under the restraints of the Japanese production system and appreciate the freedom and flexibility the digital medium offers.

Setups that, with conventional film, might take long hours to light and shoot, are now, with digicams, doable with a minimum of fuss and manpower. Locations that once seemed forbidding because of the logistics are now within easy reach. All it takes is a few economy-class plane tickets -- and a few spare battery packs.

One of those veterans is Kaizo Hayashi, a former Wunderkind whose early films, such as "Yume Miru yo ni Nemuritai (To Sleep So As To Dream)," 1986, and "Niju Seiki Shonen Dokuhon (Circus Boys)," 1989, garnered critical raves for their fluid camerawork and imaginative boldness, but whose later work, including the 1997 "Cats Eye," has tended more toward fun, fizzy eye candy than high art.

In "Lost Angeles," a fake documentary about a hapless trio of Japanese rock musicians who come to America to find fame and fortune and end up lost in the Arizona desert, Hayashi displays his usual wizardry with the camera. Working with U.S.-based cinematographers Amir Magal and Kaz Tanaka, he makes the humble digicam perform with a head-spinning agility and playful inventiveness ideally suited to his spacey road comedy.

Like so many Japanese films shot in the U.S., the view is more from the window of the rental car than the inside of society, but it happens to be a view with goofy appeal, seen through the gauzy filter of New Age mysticism. The feyness always present in Hayashi's work is not as annoying in "Lost Angeles" as it usually is because he is, for once, not recycling pop-culture trash, but embarking on a real, if often silly, journey in a real desert, where the broiling sun and hallucinatory landscape wipe the smirk off even the most self-satisfied directorial faces. By the end I was glad I had tagged along, even though the film should been titled "Dumb, Dumber and Dumbest."

Hayashi's heroes, Kenta, Koike and Maro, are a real-life trio named Sunny Cruiser who also provide the film's pulsing hard-rock soundtrack (the CD is available in the lobby). "Lost" is thus the latest in a line of rock-band-on-the-road films that stretch back to "Hard Day's Night" and beyond, though a closer parallel might be Aki Kaurismaki's 1989 deadpan comedy "Leningrad Cowboys Go America."

But whereas Kaurismaki's musically challenged Cowboys voyaged to the Land of Opportunity because they thought, more or less correctly, that Americans would "listen to anything," Hayashi's far more accomplished Cruisers view the U.S. music business as a mighty fortress they intend to take by storm. No playing dives in the boonies for them; they want to go straight to the top. Soon after arriving in L.A. (and spending the night in a car) they visit the mansion of a powerful record producer. Thankfully, the producer has a Japanese-speaking assistant. (The boys have maybe three phrases of guidebook English between them.) Unfortunately, the producer chucks their CD as soon as he closes the door.

Undiscouraged, the Cruisers decide to try Las Vegas, where they quickly win a pile at the roulette table and just as quickly lose it, through a stroke of idiocy that is one of the film's key, if lamer, gags. Sneaking out of their ritzy hotel room in the dead of night, they drive to Arizona, where they hope to meet Native Americans. Through another stroke of idiocy, however, they find themselves hiking through the desert in search of gas. (Why don't they thumb down the road? Don't ask.) Then, after accidentally ingesting magic mushrooms (with soy sauce, yet), they find themselves tripping together with a smiling, mute Native American woman.

She guides them to a wonderland of stone caverns carved into fantastic shapes by the desert winds. She also leads them off, one by one, to make ecstatic, if somehow disquieting, love. Where, they begin to wonder, are they -- in a dream or reality?

Meanwhile, a mysterious Japanese man is tirelessly driving in search of them, their promo still stuck to his dashboard, and an elderly Native American is solemnly beating a drum on a mesa as he gazes at the desert below. Who are these people and what do they want?

If "Lost" strikes American viewers as oddly lacking in Americans -- nearly all the principals, including the boys' Native American guide, are played by Japanese -- it is no odder than the many Hollywood films shot in exotic settings that relegate the locals to the role of extras in their own country. Stranger was Hayashi's decision to let his heroes ad lib all their dialogue. This is the option adopted by the popular Japanese TV shows that follow young adventurers (usually masochistically inclined comedians) as they journey through foreign lands without a yen to their names. What works well enough on the small screen plays, on the big one, like a home movie writ large. Nonetheless, the Cruisers have a natural discombobulated charm that carries them and the film through to its feel-good conclusion, in which boys find Truth, Salvation and some really neat souvenirs for the long trip home.

"Lost Angeles" is playing at Box Higashi Nakano.

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