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Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2001

'BROTHER'

Hollywood cliches without the thrills


Are Asian films ready for prime time -- that is, for the mall cineplexes of America?

If the $60 million grossed so far in the U.S. by Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" means anything, the answer is an emphatic yes (and if the film's 10 Oscar nominations result in a Best Picture award, its take may well pass the $100 million mark).

But on mailing lists devoted to Asian cinema, the response has been less than ecstatic. "CTHD," claim posters, is not a real Hong Kong movie, but a Hollywoodized hybrid. American mall moviegoers, they imply, are going into raptures about the cinematic equivalent of a fancy California restaurant that serves white wine with stir fry.

The lukewarm response in Asia to the film adds credence to these claims. In Japan, "CTHD" barely made a box-office ripple, while disappointing in Hong Kong and Korea as well.

Takeshi Kitano's gang movie "Brother" follows another, older model for Asian films trying to appeal to Western audiences. Unlike Ang Lee, Kitano never went to Hollywood to master the local filmmaking codes. Though set mostly in Los Angeles and featuring American actor Omar Epps in a starring role, "Brother" is all Kitano in nearly every frame, meaning about as non-Hollywood as you can get.

Instead of Hollywood hyperkineticism, Kitano opts for the same quirky mix of frontal compositions and elliptic editing, minimalistic dialogue and uninflected acting, brutal violence and pawky comedy that have constituted his style for more than a decade. The typical Hollywood action film is all extroverted expression, the typical Kitano film, all introverted compression -- and never the twain shall meet.

At the same time, he has included nearly the entire catalog of cliches that have characterized Japan to the West since the heyday of "yellow peril" pulp, including amputated pinkies, a disemboweling, a severed head, a suicide and, in one particularly memorable scene, broken chopsticks jammed up the nose of a rival hit man. Just about all that's missing is a banzai charge and kamikaze attack (though the film, considerately, furnishes near-equivalents).

Compared with the makers of "Battle Royale," who figured, rightly, that blowing up 15-year-olds in a government-sponsored murder game would be sexier at the box office than wasting yet another roomful of gangsters with semiautomatic weapons, Kitano's attempts at crowd-pleasing sensationalism are almost touchingly old-fashioned. The brouhaha over "Battle Royale" (Diet members and the minister of education waxing wroth over its bad effect on youth) insured that every teenager in the country would want to see it. The reaction to the on-screen mayhem in "Brother," however, has been mild indeed, and its take has been correspondingly less.

The U.S. verdict is not yet in (Sony Pictures Classics will not release the film in the United States until June), but it's hard to imagine American mall rats tuning in to Kitano's brand of arty macho romanticism. They may buy the severed digits, but not the chopped-up narrative or chopped-down performances. Culturally, this film is a plate of squid sushi in a soul food restaurant.

The hero is Yamamoto (Kitano), a yakuza sub-boss who is left with two choices after a defeat in a gang war: get whacked or get lost. He decides, wisely, to fly to Los Angeles to find his long-lost half-brother, Ken (Claude Maki). On his first day in L.A., however, he gets involved in a street beef with an African-American man nearly twice his size, who tries to shake him down for $200. Grabbing a broken bottle, Yamamoto cuts his opponent a new eye socket and goes on his way, without having changed his expression or mussed his black designer suit (courtesy of Yohji Yamamoto).

Speaking not a word of English -- or hardly a word, period -- Yamamoto quickly tracks down Ken, who is dealing drugs with a black gang. One gangster, Denny (Omar Epps), is wearing an eye-patch and greets Yamamoto with a suspicious stare. This bad moment passes, however, when Ken assures Denny that his big brother didn't do the deed. "All Japanese look alike," he jokes. This, as it turns out, is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Yamamoto, whom everyone is soon calling "Aniki" (older brother) in imitation of Ken, establishes his tough-guy credentials by whacking members of a rival gang. With Aniki as the muscle and brains, Ken and his homies become powers in the drug trade, as well allies with the handsome, ruthless Shirase (Masaya Kato), the gang lord of Little Tokyo. Instead of battling roaches in a crummy apartment, they are living large, cruising the streets in a stretch limo and shooting hoops in a snazzy, spacious penthouse office.

Aniki, however, wants to take on the Italians, who still hold the keys to the drug kingdom. He wants, in short, to live his version of the American dream. Once war is declared, it's hell in the Pacific all over again.

"Brother" has its moments of lyricism and pathos, as well as a few laughs and chills, but it never develops momentum either as a thriller or an essay on East-West friendship. Aniki rarely ventures from his shell (save to explode), while Denny never becomes more than a trash-talking sidekick. The ending, which aspires to soul-wrenching catharsis, is simply an embarrassment.

Kitano may have gone to America, but he clearly needed to get out more.

'Brother' is playing at Marunouchi Picadilly 2 and other theaters.


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