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Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2000


A little more than just a pretty face

Why, I used to wonder, when a film was based on a true story, did the actors always look better than the real people they were playing? Take away their scowls and even most tough-guy actors are handsomer than the real-life thugs they portray.

That was before I learned the first rule of the box office, which is that moviegoers of whatever stripe, be they Brad worshippers or Bresson scholars, like to see beautiful people on the screen.

There have been exceptions throughout film history (the matronly Marie Dressler, the basset-houndish Walter Matthau), but they only prove the rule. When Hollywood makes a movie about a plain Jane who can't get a date, it hires Michelle Pfeiffer.

Junji Sakamoto's "Kao (Face)" is thus a rara avis indeed. Its heroine Masako, played by stage actress Naomi Fujiyama, is not only a fat frump, but an eccentric recluse, who spends her lonely days in the ratty upstairs room of her mother's ancient dry cleaning establishment, sewing clothes, mainlining cookies and indulging in bizarre fantasies (one being a desert idyll with zoo animals).

Watching the opening scenes, I thought "Kao" was going to be another version of the ugly duckling story, but Masako never quite turns into a swan. Instead of slimming down, shaping up and living happily ever after with Mr. Right, she remains fat, frumpy and strange, but she changes and, more importantly, begins fulfilling long-deferred dreams, however small. In her own odd way, though, she remains true to herself. Despite all the masks she wears in the course of the film, she is, inevitably, Masako.

Given all this realism, both exterior and interior, one wonders how "Kao" ever got made. The answer is simple -- it is based on the true, and widely reported, story of a bar hostess who murdered one of her coworkers and spent years in hiding, only to be caught as the statute of limitations was about to expire. In writing this story for the screen, however, Junji Sakamoto and Isamu Uno tossed nearly everything but their heroine's flight and profession. There are no dramatic chase, capture or trial scenes. There is not even a murder scene; we see a body, but can only guess how it got that way.

This seems, on the face of it, commercially perverse (Sakamoto's producer must have seen yen notes fly out the window as he watched the rushes), but minus all the usual melodrama, "Kao" manages to be a deeply engrossing and quirkily entertaining film about the survival and education of one very contrary human spirit. "The Fugitive" it isn't, but a hit it is: The screening I attended at Theatre Shinjuku was packed, with the management thoughtfully handing out cushions to late arrivals.

As the film begins, Masako is drudging her life away at the side of her sharp-tongued mother (Misako Watanabe), while her pretty younger sister Yukari (Riho Makise) rakes in the money at a hostess bar and flits off to Disneyland with her latest boyfriend. Naturally, these two can't stand each other and, when their mother suddenly dies at the steam iron, the fireworks erupt. Yukari ends up dead at the foot of the stairs, and Masako flees with the condolence money.

She is torn between guilt -- even visiting a police box with the intent of turning herself in -- and a fierce, animal desire to escape and live. But after years in her room, with her television as her only companion (and tuned to the lowest-common-denominator shows), she is as unsocialized as a bear freed from its cage. Her movement through the world is full of awkward fits and starts, but somehow, with a kind of instinctive radar, she seeks out sympathetic souls, safe refuges.

One is a love hotel, where she first stays as a guest (no registers for snoopy cops to peruse), then works as a maid. The manager (Ittoku Kishibe), a silent, saturnine type, knows she is hiding something but doesn't care; he has a more important problem, financial ruin, to contend with. Before the final debacle, he teaches her to ride a bicycle -- a task her long-absent father couldn't be bothered with.

Fleeing again when the police come calling, she winds up in Beppu, a seedy Kyushu resort town, where she encounters a friendly bar mama (Michiyo Okusu) and her sullen ex-yakuza brother (Etsushi Toyokawa). Working as a hostess, she begins, for the first time, to find a measure of acceptance and happiness. In a regular (Jun Kunimura) with a sad-sack face and bad marriage, she even discovers the glimmerings of romance. Improbably and wonderfully, Masako begins to bloom. Then the ex-yakuza's past catches up with him and her little world comes crashing down.

Masako's past will catch up with her as well, on a small island off the coast of Kyushu. Ironically, it will be because she is no longer the gross, shuffling loner with no friends and no future. She has come out of her shell and no cop or ghost of remorse is going to force her back into it.

Playing Masako, most actresses would go for crowd-pleasing caricature. Naomi Fujiyama creates a character who spends much of the movie pratfalling, but whose prickly, wary individuality is anything but conventionally charming.

She is unique, this Masako, almost simple-minded in expressing her fears and needs, but capable of telling home truths in a low, level voice, with a disconcerting seriousness. Her many faces make "Kao" a most extraordinary movie. If there is any justice in the Japanese movie business (and there is, occasionally), Fujiyama will sweep this year's acting awards, but she may have trouble finding a suitable followup -- unless she morphs into Masako's younger sister.

"Kao" is playing at Theatre Shinjuku.

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