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Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2000


A revolution of the heart

A prestigious award at a foreign film festival is a grail for many Japanese filmmakers. The desire to embellish one's filmography with a Venice Silver Lion or a Cannes Golden Palm is not limited tothe Japanese, of course, but in this credential-mad society, which regards the right diploma as a stamped ticket to the good life (regardless of the work one did to get it), even a minor prize from a major international film festival is proof that one has arrived.

One beneficiary of this cultural quirk was Naomi Kawase, who became a national celebrity after winning the Camera d'Or prize for first-time directors at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival for "Moe no Suzaku," a study of a disintegrating rural family. Another was her producer, Takenori Sento, who shot to the front ranks of his profession with this coup. Sento had made dozens of films since starting his producing career with satellite broadcaster Wowow in 1991, several of which had won prizes both in Japan and abroad, but "Moe no Suzaku" was his breakthrough. In 1998, with backing from Wowow, he launched his own production company, Suncent CinemaWorks, and has since continued to churn out films with both new and established directors at a frantic pace -- and the festival invitations and awards have kept rolling in.

A Suncent CinemaWorks film and the winner of the Alfred Bauer award at this year's Berlin Film Festival for best first feature, Akira Ogata's "Dokuritsu Shonen Gasshodan (Boy's Choir)" is further proof that Sento has mastered the art of making good at foreign festivals.

An eye for talent is one element of Sento's success. In telling his gay-themed story of two boys who become friends and something more at a boarding school in the early 1970s, Ogata expresses, with a delicate precision, the quicksilver passions of adolescence and the path from revolutionary ardor to bitter disillusionment traveled by many of the era's student radicals. Young directors who attempt to reach back to a barely remembered past often clutch at generic elements from old movies, TV shows and other pop culture detritus. Ogata is more specific, as though he were recalling, not merely recycling.

An understanding of what works with foreign critics and juries is also essential, however. "Dokuritsu" is fashionably minimalist in style, with long cuts, a deliberate pace and an emotional palette more subtle than bold. No one is ever going to accuse it of being mall-ready entertainment. This is not to say that Sento cynically shaped the film to a predetermined formula. But as "Dokuritsu" and many of his other award winners indicate, he is aware that certain thematic and stylistic markers better one's chances of being taken seriously by festival programmers. It is perhaps no coincidence that "Boys' Choir" has all of them.

After the death of his father, 15-year-old Michio (Atsushi Ito) is sent to an orphanage for boys in the countryside. There he meets Yasuo (Sora Toma), the star of the school choir for his crystalline soprano voice, who is desperate to escape this rural backwater and sing in the Vienna Boys' Choir. The shy, socially awkward Michio is at first bewildered by Yasuo's straight talk (as well as attracted by his girlish beauty), but when Michio's classmates taunt him for his stuttering, Yasuo takes his side and the two boys become fast, if unlikely, friends.

They also become close to Mr. Seino (Teruyuki Kagawa), a charismatic teacher who has exchanged the leftist radicalism of his youth for a fervent Catholicism. He serves as the choir director and, after school, teaches a Bible class at a nearby town. Seino persuades Michio to join the choir (the boy stops stuttering when he sings) while allowing Yasuo to lead practices in his absence. Under his guidance and influence, both boys begin to bloom and imagine a life beyond the orphanage walls.

One night, one of Seino's former comrades, a fierce-eyed woman named Satomi (Ryoko Takizawa), shows up at his Bible class and demands his help: The police are after her for a bombing in Tokyo and she needs a hide-out. Though he has rejected the politics she is willing to die for, Seino decides to shelter her.

The winds of the outside world, from which Seino has struggled to escape with his Bible and his boys, begin blowing insistently -- and finally violently. With Satomi as the catalyst, Michio and Yasuo embrace their own brand of revolution, which has less to do with Marx and Mao than the eternal flowering of youthful idealism and love. Then, with an explosion, their world shatters.

A 41-year-old documentary filmmaker who learned his craft under indie icon Sogo Ishii, Ogata occasionally indulges in the kind of perfervid emotionalism that once characterized so many Japanese films and makes "Dokuritsu" seem uncomfortably of its period, but for the most part he adheres to the minimalist rules that govern so much of independent cinema in Japan today. He uses his camera more to passively observe than actively comment, while preferring the eloquent gesture to obvious explanations.

Moviegoers, save for the few who voluntarily watch Tarkovsky and Bresson, may find the film's finely nuanced introspection a hard sit -- until the boys lift up their voices in passionate song and deliver the film's final message: The real revolution is not in books nor bombs, but in the heart.

"Dokuritsu Shonen Gasshodan" is showing at Cinema Mediage in Odaiba.

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