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Wednesday, May 1, 2002

Family drama veers off the straight and narrow


Rating: * * *
Director: Ryosuke Hashiguchi
Running time: 135 minutes
Language: Japanese
Now showing

Say what you will about the Japanese attitude toward sexuality, it has traditionally been more open and tolerant than that of more puritanical societies. Hence the many foreign gay men who, over the decades, have found Japan a refuge, temporary or permanent, where they can live in relative safety and comfort.

News photo
Kazuya Takahashi in "Hush!"

But for every cross-dressing gay celebrity on late-night TV, thousands of gay men here remain in the closet, for social or professional reasons. If you are out in Japan, you are unlikely to encounter the sort of vicious bigotry that killed Matthew Shepard in the United States in 1998, but you are also unlikely to run a major company or win elections to high political office. The Japanese equivalents of media mogul David Geffen and U.S. congressman Barney Frank are hard to find.

Japanese filmmakers have explored these and other contradictions of gay life in the past decade, since the beginning of a brief mini-boom for gay cinema in the early 1990s, but few as penetratingly and honestly as Ryosuke Hashiguchi. Openly gay himself, he has, in films such as "Hatachi no Binetsu (A Touch of Fever)" and "Nagisa no Sindbad (Like Grains of Sand)" provided an insider's view of the "underground" lives that so many gay men here lead. Though Hashiguchi does not idealize his heroes -- he instead portrays them with a documentary-like candidness that can be raw in its impact -- he is usually successful in humanizing them.

By all rights, his latest film, "Hush!" should be the type of gay comedy that Hollywood remakes with Robin Williams and Nathan Lane (well, the Williams and Lane who played gay characters in "The Birdcage" in 1982, not 2002). A gay couple -- pet groomer Naoya (Kazuya Takahashi) and civil engineer Katsuhiro (Seiichi Tanabe) -- are living together more or less happily, but the less part is threatening to undermine the more. Closeted from family and colleagues, Katsuhiro is being pressured to do the "normal" heterosexual thing, especially by Emi (Tsugumi), a cute, if flaky, co-worker who is obsessed with him. Naoya, who is more open about his sexuality, even with his busybody mother, feels that something is missing in his life with Katsuhiro and muses out loud about the fragility of gay relationships. ("I wouldn't have been able to make it if I hadn't accepted being alone," he says at one point.)

Then a woman stumbles into their lives and everything changes. She is Asako (Reiko Kataoka), a thirtysomething dental technician who, after two abortions and an attempted suicide, has given up on not only men and marriage, but humanity as a whole. Her sex life reduced to fumblings with strangers, she dreams of a baby of her own. When she encounters the tall, handsome Katsuhiro -- and quickly susses the fact that he is gay -- she sees the answer to her prayer. Barging into his company lab, she asks him point-blank if he will father her child. No need for marriage or sex -- all she needs is a vial filled with the required fluid.

Here is where Hollywood would turn the story toward comedy, with a bundle of joy arriving sometime in the second act. Hashiguchi, however, takes it in the opposite direction, toward a serious probing of the three principals' lives, including the problem of being different (or in Asako's case, clinically disturbed) in a society that demands conformity as the price of membership.

There are a few light moments along the way, as well as the sort of intimate, if discursive, character portrayal more associated with Eric Rohmer than Mike ("The Birdcage") Nichols. Hashiguchi's one-scene, one-cut style, with its preference for the lengthy playing out of complex, turbulent emotions from the detached middle distance, also resembles that of another of his French idols, Robert Bresson.

But for all Hashiguchi's sympathy with his principals' dilemmas and his incisiveness in presenting them, he misses a crucial point: The true test for this odd trio will come after the reason that unites them arrives in their lives. Picking out baby clothes is not the same thing as dealing with their wearer 24 hours a day. Who will not just play at being parents, but change, feed and soothe a squalling bundle of joy at three in the morning? Take it to day-care and read it stories at night? Janken is not going to be the answer forever.

Instead, Hashiguchi focuses on what is essentially a melodramatic distraction: Emi's mad attempt to smear Asako's reputation with Katsuhiro's brother and Naoya's mother. In dragging out the resulting contretemps, he makes "Hush!" feel longer than its 135-minute running time. When Asako finally collapses in a faint from stress, we are ready to join her.

Sometimes, Hollywood gets it right. At least, in "The Birdcage," Albert and Armand had actually raised a kid -- and a good one at that. It would have been interesting to see how they did it.

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