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Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2001

Truly, madly, but not too deeply

Zeitaku na Hone

Rating: * * * 1/2 Director: Isao Yukisada Running time: 107 minutes Language: Japanese Now showing

Some movie titles try for evocative and end up with strange. Take the English title for a recent Korean film -- "A Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors," which suggests the kind of thing the Hell's Angels used do to 13-year-old runaways who hung around the beach party too long. I'm sure it sounds less distressing in Korean.

Tsugumi and Masatoshi Nagase in "Zeitaku no Hone"

Another which seems to fit the "strange" category is "Zeitaku na Hone," whose English title is "Luxurious Bone." Howard Stern -- the king of smutty-minded American teenage boys -- could have fun with that one. But "zeitaku" also has the nuance of "unneeded," which links to a central motif -- the heroine's chronic inability to force enough air through her constricted throat, as though she had an extra bone growing down there. OK, it's still a strange title.

The film itself, the third feature by Isao Yukisada ("Himawari," "Tojiru Hi"), is not strange at all. It fits neatly into the Japanese New Wave, whose leading exponents, such as Shinji Aoyama, Hirokazu Kore-eda and Makoto Shinozaki, are more interested in small private dramas than large social themes and whose approach tends to the introspective, meditative and allusive. Their influences are less Quentin Tarantino, Tim Burton and other American pop-culture mavens, more European and Asian art-film auteurs. Thus, the abundance of sensitive, troubled, socially marginal types in their films, the relative absence of the keitai-jabbering, manga-reading, pachinko-playing side of Japanese life.

In particular, "Zeitaku na Hone" evidences intensive viewing of director Wong Kar-wai's off-beat and rambling, if evocative and atmospheric, films about love in the urban wilderness. Yukisada is a more organized filmmaker than his Hong Kong counterpart, thinking through his various symbols and motifs with precision and depth (one imagines a chart with all the elements and arrows neatly balanced), but not as original and adventurous. The New Wave, in other words, could use a few fresh ideas.

Nonetheless, Yukisada and cinematographer Jun Fukumoto have created an erotic world that, for all its murky emotional undercurrents, has a genuine heat. I've seen its leading actress, Kumiko Aso, in five films this year alone ("Kazahana," "Kairo," "Stereo Future," "Rush!" and "Red Shadow Aka Kage") and she has never looked as lusciously appealing as she does in this film. Even costar Masatoshi Nagase, who has been a fixture on Japan's indie film scene since the mid-'80s, glows with the kind of louche, boyish charisma that was once his trademark but has been in little evidence in his recent work.

The story is a basic love triangle of the one-male, two-female variety, though "love" isn't quite the right adjective for the trio's relationship. Also, the principals are too much of their time, too beat and alienated to fit into the old triangular categories of Predatory Male or Feuding Females. They are, in fact, somewhat abstract, to better conform to Yukisada's thematic scheme, though they are not by any means his puppets.

The most strongly individual is Kumiko Aso's Miyako, a leggy, slinky enjo kosai ("compensated dating") hooker who feels nothing for her needy, nerdy clients. She is working to support herself and Sakiko (Tsugumi), a younger roommate who looks, with her short, squarely cut hair, round, childish face and blue training outfit, as though she has wandered out of a high school P.E. class. Despite her air of innocence, Sakiko is as much a damaged article as her worldly wise friend, having run away from a difficult home life and drifted into a rootless, purposeless existence, with her only anchor being the mercurial Miyako.

Then Miyako encounters Niitani (Nagase), a most untypical client, who not only looks as though he never needs to pay for it, but gives her her first orgasm since she has been on the game. Niitani, as it turns out, is not his real name, but Miyako likes him enough to stop charging him for her services -- a development that threatens the emotionally fragile Sakiko. Soon after meeting Niitani for the first time, she plays a game of step-on-the-shadow -- and "accidentally" jumps off the roof of her apartment building.

Fortunately, she only breaks a leg, but when she returns to the apartment on crutches (after Miyako forgets to meet her at the hospital), she finds Niitani and Miyako there, sleeping together. Though Sakiko wonders where she belongs in this new arrangement, with Miyako's encouragement and Niitani's acquiescence, she begins a new life menage a trois. Miyako even wants Sakiko to experience the same sexual ecstasy she enjoys, with the same man. Sakiko resists at first, then relents when she discovers that Niitani feels something for her (exactly what she cannot say). Miyako, who has trouble breathing when under stress, nearly asphyxiates with jealousy.

Everyone in this unusual triangle has layers within layers, needs they can neither fully articulate nor comprehend. Miyako, the slyly grinning toughie who has to have the upper hand (or, in Niitani's case, the top spot) in every relationship, is floundering like a fish out of water. Though ostensibly the weakest, Sakiko will do anything short of murder to keep Miyako. Niitani, who plays the passive boy toy with Miyako and the dominant male with Sakiko, is a puzzle wrapped in an enigma. He is not stupid, however -- and comes to realize that the most powerful bond is between the two women.

The big, climactic explosion that one might expect in a story of unstable personalities in a sexual roundelay never arrives, In the film's new millennial Japan, obsessions may rage, but there are no Sada Abes strangling their men out of insatiable lust and undying love. The world of Nagisa Oshima's "Ai no Corrida (In the Realm of the Senses)," where Sada could so memorably exist, is far away indeed. In faithfully reflecting the emotionally cooler world that has taken its place, "Zeitaku na Hone" is a more diffuse film than Oshima's masterpiece, with a correspondingly smaller impact. Sometimes, it pays to live in -- or at least make films about -- interesting times.

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