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Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2001

When marketing hits the target, that's amore

Reisei to Jonetsu no Aida

Rating: * *
Director: Isamu Nakae
Running time: 124 minutes
Language: Japanese
Now showing

Dating movies have one specific objective: to get couples thinking about the people they came with in ways that lead to the twining of fingers, the dabbing of tears and, after the show, . . . whatever. As long as they achieve that objective, perhaps they shouldn't be judged too harshly by grumpy film critics for unromantic things like stale plots, unconvincing characters and risible dialogue. But that's what grumpy film critics are for, isn't it?

News photo
Kelly Chen and Yutaka Takenouchi in "Reisei to Jonetsu no Aida."

That said, dating movies can be good at what couples expect them to be good at and still be enjoyed by the romantically unattached -- or too-long attached.

"Reisei to Jonetsu no Aida (Calmi Cuori Appassionati)" is to the dating movie, Japanese division, what Godzilla is to the SF movie, Japanese division: It's less a film in its own right than a can't-miss formula, packaged and sold with the best production values and marketing campaign the local industry can afford. Pan-Asian projects are big now, so the film pairs the hot Japanese television-drama star of the moment, Yutaka Takenouchi, with the hot Hong Kong film star of the moment, Kelly Chen. Italy is a favorite travel destination of OLs everywhere so much of the film is set in Florence and Milan, their gawping and shopping meccas.

Director Isamu Nakae and producer Toru Ota are doyens of the TV "trendy drama" genre, responsible for such ratings-toppers as "Love Generation," "Kono Yo no Hate (To the End of the World)," "Kiken na Kankei (Dangerous Relations)" and "Taiyo wa Shizumanai (The Sun Doesn't Set)." They are assisted by a first-rate tech staff, with cinematographer Toyoshige Tsuda supplying feathery camera moves and art director Yohei Taneda creating gorgeous interiors that make the average 2LDK look like, well, a rabbit hutch. There is also a lush score by popster Enya, with an all-stops-out romantic theme song that will no doubt be pulsing through coffee shops and convenience stores for years to come.

Given all this, the story and performances seem to be almost beside the point. Unfortunately, they are not. There is only one real actor in the movie, Takenouchi, who bears a passing resemblance to baseball superstar Ichiro and has a similar intensity and charisma. He may lack Ichiro's fluid grace -- his character in the film, a struggling artist-turned-art-restorer, is something of a klutz -- but he more than makes up for it with his male-model looks, which the film nakedly exploits, and his ability to smolder without looking either silly or self-absorbed.

The performances of the rest of the cast range from serviceable to appalling. Playing the elusive object of Takenouchi's desire, Chen hits her marks with the confidence of a supermodel who has always been the prettiest girl in the room, but she manages to work up only a mild interest in her co-star. Saying lines in three languages -- Japanese, Italian and English -- none of them her native tongue, she is like the overprepared foreign-language speech contestant who enunciates every syllable but lets the heart of what she is saying go missing -- or simply fall flat.

Finally, there is such a thing as being too beautiful for a role. Chen looks fabulous in designer frocks, but when she is asked to choose between Takenouchi's poor-but-passionate art restorer and her articulate, cultured, fabulously wealthy Chinese-American lover, we know where she really belongs -- on the arm of the latter as the ultimate trophy wife, with all the plastic her Material Girl heart desires. What's love got to do with it?

As the film begins, Junsei (Takenouchi) is living and working at his art restoration in Florence. His mentor, the stately but still sexy Joanna, paints him in the nude, with each lovingly rendered picture advertising her growing obsession. Then an old college friend (Yusuke Santamaria) comes to Italy on business and tells him that his old flame, Aoi (Chen), is in Milan. Succumbing to his own obsession, Junsei goes to meet her and discovers that she has a new boyfriend (Michel Won), a rich entrepreneur who may be a bit on the puffy side, but has a pad out of "Architectural Digest" and the social and business worlds at his command.

Seeing that she is now out of his league, Junsei runs off, but can't get Aoi -- a half-Japanese, half-Chinese girl with a maddening beauty and remoteness -- out of his mind. Then, when he arrives back in Florence, he finds that someone has shredded a 17th-century painting he was working on. Reeling from these personal and professional blows, he returns to Japan and takes up with the slinky, clingy Memi (Ryoko Shinohara), but nothing in her sexual restorer's kit can mend his broken heart.

All is not lost, however -- beneath her cool surface, Aoi has kept the embers of her love for Junsei burning. What can reignite them? Possibly a long-promised lover's reunion on the cupola of the Duomo -- the pink marble pile of a church that is Florence's most prominent landmark.

The reunion motif, of course, is a straight steal from that big dating movie of the 1950s, the Deborah Kerr-Cary Grant melodrama, "An Affair to Remember." The potential audience for "Jonetsu," however, is more likely to know it as a major plot motif in "Sleepless in Seattle," the Meg Ryan-Tom Hanks romantic comedy that was the big dating movie of the 1990s. Will "Jonetsu" become the big dating movie of 2001? Given the tendency of the film's target female audience to pay more attention to the male than female side of the romantic equation, it might do well indeed. But it won't equal its Hollywood models in at least one crucial aspect: Both Kerr and Ryan could act.

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