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Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2000

'CHAOS'

All tied up in narrative knots


In "Vertigo," Alfred Hitchcock's masterly study of obsession and illusion, James Stewart plays a private detective hired by a college friend to trail his wife on her secretive rounds. The wife, played by Kim Novak at the height of her ice goddess beauty, is indeed not what she seems, in ways that baffle, ensorcel and ultimately terrify the detective, as he opens doors to his troubled past and finds Novak, with a different identity, behind them. The film is as much about Stewart's unsettled mind, playing its endless loop of Novak's fatal plunge from a bell tower, as it is about its whodunit plot.

In "Chaos," self-confessed Hitchcock disciple Hideo Nakata attempts to do with his story of a fake kidnapping gone wrong what Hitch did with "Vertigo" -- send the audience swirling into the hero's inner whirlpool of confusion, as he searches for the real face of the woman who employs him, seduces him and deceives him. The director of the first two installments of the hit "Ring" horror series, Nakata builds the right atmosphere for this story, heavy with sensuality and menace. But although the film has its pleasures, including a smart, sexy performance by Miki Nakatani as the entrancingly devious and dangerously unstable femme fatale, it ends by creating confusion rather than evoking it.

The fault is not entirely Nakata's. Hisashi Saito's script, based on the 1991 novel "Sarawaretai Onna" by Shogo Utano, is too clever by half, leading the audience into a maze of alternative realities. The untrustworthy narrator has become a familiar figure in postmodern fiction and films, but the untrustworthy narrative, in which the line between dream and reality remains forever indistinct, presents more formidable challenges. I thought, at certain points, that I had slipped into another dimension and returned to find myself in a totally different movie. Then, after seeing the film twice, I bought the program, read the script and realized that I hadn't been hallucinating. "Chaos" is aptly titled.

The film begins as an ordinary-enough thriller. Takayuki Komiyama (Ken Mitsuishi), a prosperous businessman, has lunch with his slinky young wife Saori (Nakatani) at a fancy Western-style restaurant. While he pays the bill, she walks outside -- and promptly disappears. Wondering what has become of her, Komiyama returns to his office. There he receives a phone call from a Mr. Sato, who says he has kidnapped Saori and is holding her for ransom. Komiyama thinks he is the victim of a prank, until he hears Saori's terror-filled voice. (Warning -- spoilers ahead!)

Enter the police, led by the cool, competent, if glum-looking detective Hamaguchi (Jun Kunimura), who wire Komiyama's home phone for the kidnapper's next call. It comes soon enough, with a demand for 30 million yen and instructions to take the money by taxi to the Tohoku Expressway. Komiyama complies, but the kidnapper (Masato Hagiwara), a puffy-faced young man in a ball cap, has no intentions of meeting him. Instead he has another, safer plan for cashing in -- and makes it work.

Switch to a flashback. The kidnapper, whose real name is Kuroda, is sleeping late in his mess of a house when he receives a caller -- Saori. He is, as it turns out, a benriyasan (jack-of-all-trades) and she has an unusual job for him -- help her fake a kidnapping. Her husband, she feels, is drifting away from her and she wants to bring him up short. She has a hiding place -- the apartment of an absent friend -- all she needs is someone to play the kidnapper. For a million yen, Kuroda is willing. From either similar jobs or an intensive study of detective novels, he has developed an array of techniques for fooling her husband and the inevitable police. He even teaches Saori how to tie her own ropes with her teeth, a rather silly idea, but a sexy scene.

Flash forward. Kuroda returns to the apartment at night, after the successful completion of the caper, to give Saori the good news, but finds a corpse instead. In shock from this horrific discovery, he hears the phone ring. An anonymous caller, in a rough masculine voice full of malice, tells Kuroda he knows his little secret and accuses him of murdering his client. Bathed in sweat, Kuroda clicks off and begins frantic preparations to dispose of the body.

But Saori, we see, has more than one identity and the film, more than one version of the series of events that conclude with her hog-tied on the apartment floor. What are the real aims of her machinations? Where do her affections really lie, with Kuroda or Komiyama or neither? Which, if any, of her stories is true?

In "Vertigo" Hitchcock may have shuffled the narrative cards cunningly, but he was playing with a straight deck. By the end we know what happened at the bell tower and why. Nakata, on the other hand, is playing cinematic three-card monte. This game, as Akira Kurosawa proved so stunningly in "Rashomon," can be as valid as the more conventional varieties, but he also made his narrative strategy clear. Striving for a fashionable ambiguity, Nakata is more reluctant to show his hand, filming his transitions with few clues, visual or otherwise.

But he can't out-master the masters. "Chaos" is as intriguing, alluring and mystifying as its double-jointed heroine's smile. It is also, like the heroine, a stylishly packaged scam. Enter it with your eyes wide open and leave with enough cash to buy the program. You may need it.

"Chaos" is playing at Theater Shinjuku and other theaters.


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