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Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2001

All alone, on the edge of infinity



Turn

Rating: * * * Director: Hideyuki Hirayama Running time: 111 minutes Language: Japanese Shwoing at Warner Mycal Cinemas, Itabashi (03) 3937-1551

Ever feel like you're spinning in a hamster wheel? Doing the same thing, the same way at the same time every day? Enough to drive you bonkers, isn't it? Of course, humanity has come up with myriad ways of varying the diurnal round, such as eating pancakes on Sunday morning instead of the inevitable All Bran.

Riho Makise in Hideyuki Hirayama's "Turn"

But what if you had to relive the same Sunday into infinity, and alone? You would miss that familiar face across the breakfast table pretty quickly, wouldn't you? -- even if it had been hidden behind a newspaper for 20 years.

That is the situation of the heroine in "Turn," the new film by Hideyuki Hirayama ("Gakko no Kaidan," "Ai o Kou Hito"). The obvious, though not entirely fair, comparison is with the 1993 comic masterpiece "Groundhog Day." What film, Japanese or not, could compete with Jay Rubin's flawless script, Harold Ramis' inspired direction and Bill Murray's career-peak performance as an obnoxious TV weatherman eternally chasing Andie MacDowell through the same day? Murray's transformation from frog to prince in the course of this chase was not only laugh-till-you-gag hilarious, but inspirational. If a jerk like Murray could unearth his buried Mr. Right and win the hand of the wondrous MacDowell, there must be hope for the rest of us.

By those standards, "Turn" is too modest and earnest for its own good, like a Japanese exchange student lost in a dorm with raucous Americans, all convinced they are God's gift to creation. It's a film that's easy to overlook -- and, in fact, it sat in a can for more than a year before being released in 11 Warner Mycal cineplexes nationwide. (I saw it at the cineplex in Tobu Nerima, about 10 minutes from Ikebukuro on the Tobu Line.)

As well, though, "Turn" is a humanist drama of the type that Japanese cinema once did supremely well, but which has become rare in recent years. Hirayama, whose credits include the 1993 black comedy "Za Chugaku Kyoshi (Games Teachers Play)" -- the most incisive film ever about the meltdown of the Japanese educational system -- is well-suited to this material. He has a knack for getting the best from his actors, and "Turn" is an actors' showcase.

Playing a struggling printmaker stranded in a time loop, Riho Makise ("Tokyo Joku Irasshaimase," "Tsugumi") turns in a strong, luminous performance in one of the toughest acting situations imaginable. On camera for nearly the entire film, and often acting to the four walls, Makise keeps her intensity and focus in scene after scene, while showing us exactly what is going on inside her character's troubled and sometimes frantic mind.

Unlike Tom Hanks' bravura turn as a FedEx manager in "Cast Away," Makise's character expresses a frightened clarity about her situation that invites sympathy without straining for it. Sentenced to her existential prison for life, she knows she is in danger of going stark mad. What saves her is a grim determination to maintain normalcy, while keeping a firm hold on hope.

A teacher of art to children, Maki (Makise) makes engravings that are just too plain to sell. (She has a thing for dark mezzotints of plant life.) Still living at home with her mother (Michiko Baisho) as she edges into her 30s, she is trapped in her routine with seemingly no way out. Then a gallery owner agrees to display one of her mezzotints, and she feels a moment of elation, until, on her way to class, she has an unexpected encounter with an oncoming truck.

When she wakes up, she is back on her sun-splashed veranda at home, with the clock at 2:15 in the afternoon. She feels no pain, only a strange sense that something is amiss, a sense she confirms by venturing outside and finding the streets and shops deserted. She is, she realizes, stuck in another dimension, completely alone, but with the entire world at her command. And at 2:15 p.m. every day, she returns to the veranda -- to start the same day again. Feeling a mixture of excitement and unease, she takes what she wants from the empty stores, including the occasional designer dress or bag, while carefully paying for every purchase. (Evidently, her bank balance resets every day as well.)

Then as time wears on (without ever going anywhere), dread starts to grip her. Will she always awake to this same sunny, unbearably quiet day? She is just about to melt down, when the phone, impossibly, rings. She answers it and hears a voice from her old world, a young designer named Yohei Izumi (Kantaro Nakamura) who has bought her mezzotint. Hysterical with joy and terrified that he might hang up, she explains her situation in a tumble of words. A decent sort, Izumi agrees to keep the line open while investigating her incredible claim.

He learns that she is not lying -- never mind how. He also starts to fall for this otherworldly woman, so unnaturally honest and sincere; while for Maki, his voice is life itself. Then, she discovers she is not alone.

Like so many other Japanese films over the years, "Turn" echoes "Ghost" in its disembodied love story, right down to the smirking nastiness of the bad guy (Kazuaki Kitamura) who tries to ruin everything. However, more interesting than the film's familiar way stations on the road to romance is its underlying theme: the importance of human connection in a crowded, distracted, material world. In urban Japan, other people become objects to use, or more commonly, to ignore. Fighting throngs, we dream of vast deserts, empty beaches.

Be careful what you wish for, "Turn" tells us, as you just might get it. And then what? Eternal stillness, solitude and longing for eyes that look into yours with something more than indifference. Gucci isn't the answer after all -- who would have thought it?



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