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Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2001


Otaku loose in a noirish world

Dark future movies are, by now, as established an SF subgenre as creature features or space operas. Their world view is usually a cross between an Orwellian nightmare and a Jean Paul Gaultier fashion show: grim, oppressive and dangerous but sexy, radical and cool. In other words, you wouldn't mind visiting, but you'd hate to live there.

It all goes back to "Blade Runner," which has had a bigger impact on dark future filmmakers -- or perhaps I should say art directors -- than any other.

But times have changed since Ridley Scott was updating the definition of human for the '80s, while introducing the word "replicant" to the language.

Today, instead of artificial entities who look, talk and act like us (or at least those of us who have had moral lobotomies), dark future films are speculating more about the unreality of reality and the merger of humanity with the bit stream that surrounds us -- and threatens to engulf us. Among the best is "Ghost in the Shell," a 1995 animated movie by Mamoru Oshii set in a future Hong Kong menaced by a cyber criminal who has no mortal form, only malicious control over an enormous sea of data. The ultimate computer virus, as it were.

Now Oshii has returned with, not more cel animation -- a technology that is beginning to look dated -- but a live-action film that takes up where "Ghost in the Shell" left off, in a future Poland instead of Hong Kong. Place, however, is less important than post-apocalyptic mood, in which the risky thrills of a virtual-reality game (with the emphasis on "reality") coexist with economic depression and social collapse.

There is little recognizably Polish about this world -- it could be any Eastern European country with picturesquely decaying cityscapes, wheezing streetcars and statuesque brunettes whose glamour comes from an air of experience and an aura of danger.

There is, however, something definitely Oshii about it -- "Avalon" is his anime otaku vision transposed to a world of flesh and blood, brick and mortar. Watching the film, I found myself mentally "animating" the characters and sets and realizing that, though Oshii may have left animation behind, its esthetics still inform every frame.

Not to say the film is "cartoony" -- it is, if anything, too lost in the noirish gloom for its own good -- but it is shot in a way familiar from the world of SF anime, with its affection for techno detail and funky retro style. Oshii even processed most of the film in the sepia shades favored by art photographers and printmakers of a century ago. They are lovely to look at -- and further blur the line between dream and reality.

The heroine is Ash (Malgorzata Foremniak), one of the aforementioned brunettes, who lives alone in a run-down apartment block with her basset hound. She makes a precarious living playing Avalon, a virtual-reality RPG (role-playing game) with a military theme, in which the losing players end up as "lost" -- i.e., burned-out shells whose connection with reality (or at least our current version of it) has been permanently severed. The grimly ironic name of the game refers to the mythical island where warriors go after their deaths in glorious battle.

An expert player, who vaporizes enemy soldiers and equipment with ease, including a deadly looking monster of a chopper, Ash wants to move to the next, highest level of the game: Special A, which has no reset and, for all but the winners, no return. She is also determined to play solo, despite the urgings of the aged Game Master (Wladyslaw Kowalski) to join a "party" or team.

She once belonged to Wizard, one of the best parties in the game, which dissolved after its leader, Murphy (Jerzy Gudejko) took a disastrous hit trying to take them into Special A and became a member of the blank-eyed lost. Enough, she decided, was enough -- if she tackles Special A again, it will be alone.

Then two men enter her solitary existence and jolt her out of her rut. One is the mysterious Bishop (Dariusz Biskupski), a skin-headed hulk who mockingly challenges her supremacy on the field of battle. The other is the too-familiar Stunner (Bartek Swiderski), a former Wizard member, who may be a shifty-eyed, food-bolting slob, but wants to renew his relationship with Ash -- and has information she needs if she is to return intact from Special A.

This, so far, is pretty standard woman-on-a-mission stuff. It unfolds, otaku-like, too slowly for strangers to the RPG culture, who may not be as enthralled as initiates with Ash's quest to battle through to the "mission complete" screen and rack up more points on her Avalon gold card.

But once she enters Special A, the game, and the film, moves to another, more complex, level, in which the quest becomes more inner than outer and the objective begins to shift in ways that Ash could not foresee or humanly understand. What is "virtual reality" when you're no longer sure what is virtual and what is real?

This is the same question posed by the Wachowski brothers' "The Matrix" and David Cronenberg's "eXistenZ," and, for fans of those films, Oshii's answers may have a familiar ring. (Though Oshii first got the idea for "Avalon" nearly a decade ago, long before his American and Canadian competition hit the screen.) I liked Oshii's, though: He is not trying to graft heady New Age philosophy onto Hollywood SF and Hong Kong chopsocky cliches ("The Matrix") or film the equivalent of a bad acid trip with gross-out effects ("eXistenZ"). Instead, he is taking his personal RPG obsession to the outer limits, giving "Avalon" a feeling of conviction and commitment the other films lack. Hit the play button -- if you dare.

"Avalon" is playing at Shinjuku Tokyu Milano Building and other theaters.

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