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Tuesday, March 20, 2001

'CHINESE DINNER'

Takeout that fails to deliver


The first Japanese filmmakers, like first filmmakers almost everywhere, thought of their new medium as an extension of still photography: a way of recording reality. Thus the early films of kabuki plays, in which the camera was planted squarely in front of the stage and left there, with pauses only to change reels. Whatever the quality of the play or performances, the result was a filmed experience of stupendous tedium.

In the years since, filmmakers have used various cinematic tricks to "open up" their films of plays, taking them beyond the proscenium arch to the world beyond. Relatively few, however, have gone in the opposite direction -- "closing down" their films to the equivalent of the one-set, one-act play. Movies are supposed to move, aren't they? And how much movement can you get from two characters shut in a room?

Veteran director Yukihiko Tsutsumi tries to answer that question in "Chinese Dinner," a film that, in the program notes, he frankly acknowledges as an "experiment" born of frustration with grinding out an endless succession of TV commercials and TV dramas, interspersed with the occasional feature assignment ("Kindaiichi Shonen Jikenbo," "Keizoku," "Oboreru Sakana").

"I have no idea whether this film will also work as a 'product,' " he writes. "With apologies to my producers, I didn't make it for that reason."

Welcome to a midlife-crisis movie.

"Chinese Dinner," however, is anything but a stagy stab at Art. Instead it is a feature-length illustration of what the late Gene Siskel called the "Fallacy of the Talking Killer." The villain gets the drop on the hero, but instead of pulling the trigger, he mocks, explains, boasts, until the hero either turns the tables or help arrives. Though some action directors, such as James Cameron in the "Terminator" films, explode this fallacy (Arnie the Terminator is a fellow of refreshingly few words), many still use it (or succumb to it).

Not many, however, would think of building an entire film around it.

Tsutsumi, together with scriptwriters Gakusei Kato and Rizo Kito, sets up this situation cleverly enough. Hoshino (Toshiro Yanagiba) is the mob-connected owner of a ritzy Chinese restaurant. One evening he's sitting down in a lavishly appointed private room to enjoy an elaborate multicourse dinner, when he gets a call from a crooked politician of his acquaintance. A long-meditated money-laundering deal is about to bear fruit and earn him a cool 5 billion yen. The gang boss who backed him on this deal will be pleased.

He is, understandably, in the mood for celebrating when an unexpected visitor (Izam) arrives -- a tall, husky, mincing fellow in dreadlocks, with a gun. He is a hit man sent to whack Hoshino -- but for what? The hit man neither explains nor kills; instead he sits down at the table and asks Hoshino when dinner is going to be served. Coolly, Hoshino calls in Chinese for the waitress, who enters, wearing a red, slit dress and an inscrutable expression, with the first course. The longest meal of Hoshino's life has just begun.

We know that, before it is over, we will find out who sent the hit man and why. We also know that, at some point, Hoshino will make a grab for the gun the hit man has placed so carelessly (or cunningly) on the Lazy Susan. We do not know, however, how this dinner will end. Devious and corrupt, Hoshino is hardly a hero, even a dirty one, while the hit man, though hardly an angel, is not a fool. It is not entirely obvious, in other words, that Hoshino will prevail.

Toshiro Yanagiba, a veteran character actor whose films include Juzo Itami's "Minbo no Onna" (1992) and Katsuyuki Motohiro's "Odoru Daisosasen The Movie" (1998), projects the right ruthless intelligence as Hoshino -- not the Evil Genius of cliche, but very evidently spinning his mental gears at a furious rate. Meanwhile, Izam, the Boy George-ish singer who heads the glam rock group Shazna, is effective, if cartoonishly flamboyant, as the hit man.

Also, the film's visual elements, from the smooth camerawork of Satoru Karasawa to the gorgeously decadent set design of Nao Inagaki, build the elegantly sinister atmosphere with a flawless professionalism.

But for all its slickness, "Chinese Dinner" is finally silly, as Hoshino and the hit man run through every change ever devised for movie face-off scenes, including the most tired of all: the simultaneous dive for the same lethal weapon. Halfway through I began to long for one to whack the other, to end not the suspense so much as the idiocy.

And the slinky Chinese waitress, who pretends to see nothing, even when she walks in when her boss is munching his Peking duck with a pistol pointed at his head? We all know what happens to slinky Chinese waitresses in movies like this one, don't we? Just like we know what happens to the big aquarium of tropical fish that frames so many scenes. A bang, a splash -- and yet another cinematic debt to John Woo.

"Chinese Dinner" is a beautifully wrapped box of takeout, but with a recycled flavor. An hour after leaving the theater I was hungry -- for a movie.

"Chinese Dinner" is playing at Shibuya Cine Place.


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