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Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2000


Head-to-head with the big boys

Ever find yourself sitting on a train and noticing that every seat has been taken but the one beside you, while 20 of your fellow passengers stand, studiously ignoring your existence?

If you are a happy, well-adjusted foreigner, you immediately churn out rationalizations for this behavior, which must never be attributed to anything as nasty as prejudice. If you are Japanese, perhaps you mentally calculate the number of days since you last changed your underwear.

The relationship between the Japanese movie industry and Hollywood has long resembled this train scenario, with the Japanese, by and large, carefully avoiding anything that smacks of confrontation with the big-budget action movies that have long been a Hollywood staple.

The local industry reasoning was hard to refute: Hollywood did this kind of thing so much better and had so much more money to do it with. It was bad enough that Japanese producers had to pound their foreheads on the bureaucratic tatami to put one decent action scene on the screen, but to do it on one-tenth of a Hollywood budget! If "Speed" had been made in Japan, the airplane explosion at the end would have been done with a superannuated Cessna or, if airport authorities had been more stiff-necked than usual, a balsa-wood model and lighter fluid.

No wonder that, for many years, the industry's idea of a big-scale action was either 30 samurai leaping about with swords or Godzilla tromping another national landmark.

"Whiteout" is a Japanese movie that not only sits next to the Hollywood giant, but locks eyeballs and dares it to blink. Commercially, this thriller about a terrorist group's takeover of the country's largest dam seems to be winning its challenge: Distributor Toho expects to clear 3 billion yen on film rentals, putting "Whiteout" into the black -- even though "MI:2" will earn more than twice as much here and zillions more worldwide. No need, in other words, for Tom Cruise to lose sleep over Yuji Oda.

What "Whiteout" tries to do, in fact, is less to pile on the stunts and effects a la John Woo than to crank up the tension a la Jackie Kang, the director of the 1999 Korean megahit "Shuri." But whereas "Shuri" was rooted in the political and cultural realities of the Korean Peninsula (and even proved remarkably prophetic in its vision of North-South rapprochement) "Whiteout" is a mangaesque fantasy based on a best-selling novel by former animation director Yuichi Shinpo.

Be that as it may, the villains are definitively hip, as though they had their hair styled in Roppongi and bought their black bad-guy costumes at Jean-Paul Gaultier. Also, first-time director Setsuro Wakamatsu stages the action scenes as though he has been woodshedding with tapes of everything from "Die Hard" to "A Better Tomorrow" to learn how the pros do it right.

In its first hour "Whiteout" clips entertainingly along. In its second, though, the various plot contrivances, including the absurd explanation of why the terrorists are there in the first place, begin to slow the film, if not bury it. The ending, while clever, is bit of a letdown after all that waiting for the dam to blow. I was expecting an explosion to end all Japanese movie explosions. Instead, I got something -- cooler.

"Whiteout" begins, appropriately, with an extended action sequence, as two dam workers and fast friends, Togashi (Yuji Oda) and Yoshioka (Ken Ishiguro) set off to rescue hikers lost in the nearby mountains. They find the hikers and are escorting them to safety when Yoshioka falls off the path and injures his leg. Togashi hurries down the mountain in search of help, but is caught in a whiteout -- a blizzard that reduces visibility to zero. He survives this storm, but his buddy does not.

Flash forward two months: Yoshioka's lovely, leggy fiancee (Nanako Matsushima) arrives at a shinkansen station in the remote area of Niigata Prefecture to see the place where her lover died. While she and her escort are driving through a tunnel leading to the dam site, they are stopped by a group of cyberpunkish-looking men -- terrorists on their way to seize the dam. She becomes their prisoner, and her escort -- road kill.

Togashi, who was waiting for her with the compass that Yoshioka gave him before he died, is soon running from the terrorists. They have taken all the other dam workers hostage, and know that he is the only exception.

Can he stop them before they either get their 5 billion yen in ransom money and free tickets out of the country -- or kill all the hostages and unleash a watery holocaust on the valley below?

It would take too long to explain all of Togashi's wanderings through the dam's labyrinthine inner workings in his battle to defeat the terrorists (the program helpfully supplies a map). Think of the airport in "Die Hard" gone vertical, with water instead of airplanes supplying the roars.

Naturally, the nearby village is soon flooded with cops and other security types, but they discover that natural and man-made barriers, including a tunnel sealed by a terrorist bomb, are blocking their way to the dam. And when the terrorists begin executing hostages on camera, they abandon the idea of an all-guns-blazing rescue mission. Togashi is on his own.

It's a critical cliche that good action movies require a good villain. As the bearded, bespectacled and wheelchair-bound terrorist leader, Koichi Sato seems to be thoroughly enjoying himself. After serving as the romantic lead in all those trendy dramas, it must be fun to play the evil genius and perfect one's cackle.

Still, I couldn't help asking myself, what does this man think he's doing? In this age of instant millionaires, who needs to battle the entire Japanese police force, let along Yuji Oda, to make that first 5 billion yen? If he's so smart, where's his IPO?

"Whiteout" is playing at Nichigeki Toho and other theaters.

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