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Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2001

What's age got to do with it?

27 Missing Kisses

Rating: * * * 1/2 Japanese title: Sybill no Itazura Director: Nana Djordjadze Running time: 96 minutes Language: Georgian Now showing

Evidence of Loli-kon (Lolita complex), Japan's perennial sexual hangup, is everywhere you look these days. Less remarked upon, but arguably no less common, is its polar opposite, papa-kon, which a young woman yearns for a maturer, more experienced "daddy" figure to sweep her off her feet.

Shalva Iashvili and Nino Kuchianidze in "27 Missing Kisses"

Thus, it's no surprise that "27 Missing Kisses" -- a postcard-pretty tragicomedy out of Georgia (that one in Eastern Europe, not the American South) about a 14-year-old girl with a crush on a 41-year-old man -- is opening at Bunkamura's Le Cinema, the Tokyo theater that, more than any other, has identified its tastes with those of young, fashionable, romantic OLs.

Coming hot on the heels of the hugely successful "Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her," "27 Missing Kisses" is another tale about looking for love told from a savvy female perspective. Director Nana Djordjadze accords her heroine a range of emotional depth and complexity rarely seen in the "love interest" roles foisted off on Hollywood actresses. (Will somebody give Penelope Cruz a real part, please?)

Set in a quaint, rustic village nestled among the Caucasus mountains, "27 Missing Kisses" follows Sybill (Nino Kuchianidze) as she goes to visit her aunt on summer holiday. Her first adventure is the bus ride: After braving precipitous mountain roads and an errant artillery barrage, the bus arrives in the village with broken brakes. Unable to stop, it careens around the village's circular plaza. Sybill jumps off and into the solid arms of Alexander (Eugenij Sidichin), an astronomer with the build of a bricklayer.

It's love at first sight for Sybill, a precocious 14-year-old who's ready to plunge into her first passion. But Alexander resists the teen's crush, mostly because he has a child himself -- 14-year-old Mickey (Shalva Iashvili). Also, as a widower, he is already the town's most eligible bachelor. He carries on a torrid affair with Veronica (Amalia Mordvinova), a frustrated ballerina and wife of a military officer (David Gogibedashvili) who shoots off his cannon but nothing else.

This doesn't deter Sybill, who follows Alexander everywhere and creeps into his observatory late at night. When her attempts at seduction are brushed aside -- firmly, if politely -- Sybill confides her frustration to Mickey, further tormenting the poor boy who's been head-over-heels smitten with Sybill since he first saw her. Mickey begins to resent his father and a messy love triangle ensues, with tragic results for all.

In between, there's lots of episodic humor of the lusty life-loving South European kind. You know the drill: a post-Fellini, hyperbolic town complete with strutting fascist, village idiot and insatiable nymphomaniac, where the locals spend all their time at parties and picnics and nobody does a spot of work, ever. The magic realism does get laid on a bit thick at times, with such characters as the crusty old sailor who drags his massive boat along behind a tractor, searching futilely for the sea. Allegory, anyone?

Djordjadze does know how to turn a joke, though. The screening of "Emmanuelle" at the village cinema unleashes a wave of sexual liberation that produces unintended results -- a village musician requires heavy machinery to extract his woody from cast-iron cogs, a scene that would leave the Farrelly brothers gasping for breath. At the same time, it's interesting to see how this soft-core B-movie came as a revelation in those repressed, Soviet times.

Nevertheless, the heart and soul of the movie lies in unrequited love -- Sybill for Alexander and Mickey for Sybill. All three actors do a great job, but it's Kuchianidze's show to steal, and steal it she does, with an utterly irresistible performance. Half her charm is innate, involving the contrast between her looks -- lanky, angelic, with a headful of wild, strawberry-blonde curls -- and her voice, which emerges about two octaves lower than you'd expect, a husky tomboy baritone that belies her ethereal presence. No doubt about it, this is a star turn for Nino, and she's already been cast for Neil Jordan's next film.

As a side note, it will be interesting to see whether "27 Missing Kisses" is ever shown in the United States, due to a brief nude scene involving the (then) 16-year-old Kuchianidze. Never mind that it's just a scene in a bath. The U.S., caught up in antipedophile hysteria, has passed regulations forbidding the depiction of minors in a sexual manner (and yes, all nudity is sexual to prudes) or even allowing a body-double actor of proper age to appear in such a scene. Director Adrian Lyne's remake of "Lolita" stumbled over this law, and it appears likely this film will, too.

There must surely be a better way to prevent exploitation than sticking one's head in the sand and pretending that teen sexuality does not exist. The fact that a film as tender and romantic as "27 Missing Kisses" may run foul of such a law serves only to highlight its ridiculousness.

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