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Wednesday, July 11, 2001

Screenwriting by remote control



Stereo Future

Rating: * * Director: Hiroyuki Nakano Running time: 111 minutes Language: JapaneseNow showing

Filmmaking is about putting images on the screen. It is also, if not always, about telling a story. Hollywood has long subordinated images to story, the classic ideal being the "seamless" style in which cuts and camera movements are all but invisible to the audience.

Akiko Monou and Masatoshi Nagase in "Stereo Future"

In the world of the music video, however, the images often are the story, with the filmmaker playing the role, not of the unobtrusive craftsman, but of the pop star with a camera. Like the artists whose songs he is promoting, he is free to push all the limits, as long as he can persuade channel-surfing teenagers to lift their thumbs off the remote. In other words, he has to hold his audience not just from scene to scene, but from second to second.

Since MTV first went on the air two decades ago, makers of video clips have addressed this task with all the technological toys at their command, sampling, mixing and morphing to their heart's content, while influencing everything from TV commercials to mainstream films. Far from being invisible, Hollywood style is today more and more in the audience's face, in ways ranging from the darkly humorous surrealism of David O. Russell's "Three Kings" to the frantic busyness of Michael Bey's "Armageddon," a film that panders to the lowest common attention span.

Hiroyuki Nakano is one of the foremost Japanese practitioners of the MTV way who has worked with many of the top local artists (Mr. Children, Glay, Blankey Jet City, Miki Imai). In 1998 he made his feature film debut with "SF Samurai Fiction," a new take on the samurai swashbuckler genre. Despite the nods to Quentin Tarantino in the title and elsewhere, the film had little in the way of Tarantino's hipster edge, including his joy in making the audience's laughter stick in its throat. It had a lot, though, in the way of energy, inventiveness and self-advertising charm.

Now Nakano is back with "Stereo Future," which shares not only title initials and several of the same actors, but thematic connections with the previous film as well. Once again Nakano shows why he is king of the video clip, filming the love troubles of his mostly young stars with close, knowing attention to details of look, gesture and attitude that underscore their sexual and generational appeal. There is also a heavy musical overlay, ranging from the cello suites of J.S. Bach to club beats and Latin rhythms. One could, in fact, turn down the dialogue, turn up the music and slot many of the scenes straight into the MTV play rotation.

"Stereo Future," however, wants to be more than an "SF Samurai Fiction" retread; instead of entertaining with genre parody, it offers deep thoughts on environmental destruction and various other dysfunctions of modern society, implying a link between dying trees and sick souls. It even makes a plea, illustrated by two train tracks diverging, that we choose the "right road."

Though in earnest, Nakano is still a devotee of the MTV aesthetic, which studiously avoids anything hinting of high seriousness. Instead, he keeps the film clipping along with everything from romantic idylls a la Claude LeLouch to slapstick foolery straight from the tube.

As hip and stylish as "Stereo Future" undoubtedly is (the cinematic equivalent of a photo spread in Cut magazine), the romance at its core has strangely, almost perversely, gone missing. It's as though Oliver Stone were, in "Natural Born Killers," to keep Mickey and Mallory apart until the last reel, while relying on surrogates to supply the romantic tension. In other words, 5,000 cuts and not much of a story.

The year is 2002, the place, Tokyo. Keisuke (Masatoshi Nagase), a struggling actor, gets a lucky break when Mika (Kumiko Aso), the star of a samurai swashbuckler he is auditioning for, takes a shine to him and, over the objections of her irascible director (Shoichiro Akaboshi), gets him a small part as a swordsman. Unfortunately for Keisuke, the star playing the samurai hero (Naoto Takenaka) is a flake, prone to ad-libbing, and Keisuke catches the flak when things go wrong.

His personal life is a mess as well, his girlfriend Eri (Akiko Monou) having left him just before the start of shooting. By way of compensation, he finds himself in bed with Mika, but something is not right, even when, by a fluke, he ends up with a larger role and a shot at stardom.

Meanwhile, Eri is in her own purgatory, having become mute in the aftermath of her breakup with Keisuke. When she goes to a symposium on the environment with her older sister Kaoru (Tamaki Ayakawa), a TV director who is working on a program about environmental degradation, she discovers that one of the speakers, an Italian tree expert (Daniel Ezralow), is the same handsome, goateed, extremely persistent guy who had tried to pick her up a few days earlier. After his talk, the expert renews the acquaintance and invites Eri for a romantic, if instructional, walk in the woods. Surrounded by verdant nature, in the company of an attractive stranger, Eri feels the stirrings of renewal -- but what about love?

As Eri and Keisuke follow their parallel tracks toward the only possible conclusion, it becomes harder to understand what brought them together in the first place, or why they seem fated for that happy fade-out into the sunset. At the dangerous age of 35, Nagase looks less like a punk kid winningly lost and more like a middle-aged loser, while former model Monou, dialogue or no dialogue, comes across as a pouty, lush-lipped babe born to wear designer clothes and be with the men who can afford to buy them. The suave gaijin tree-hugger is a step up from Nagase's bumbling bit actor, but one feels that she can go higher, much higher.

This impression is reinforced by Ayakawa's TV director, a slick, sleek minx who oozes charm and calculation in equal proportions, in a manner reminiscent of that ur-ingenue, Ryoko Hirosue. There is no irony in Nakano's treatment of this formidable pair, or the bubbly, self-regarding star played by Aso. He sees the glamour, misses the pretension -- and calls it the future.

Where is Sayuri Yoshinaga when we need her?



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