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Wednesday, June 26, 2002

Like taking fake flowers to a funeral


Rating: * *
Director: Go Riju
Running time: 128 minutes
Language: Japanese
Now showing

Some movie cliches are universal, others are local. Digital clocks wired to explosives can be found in thrillers from Seoul to Hollywood. The digits, for some reason, are always red -- and never count down to zero. Lovers scamper and cavort by the sea in movies made the world over, with a few exceptions. Canada is one, though I may have missed a film or two with a young couple running giddily into Lake Superior.

News photo
Rie Tomosaka and Masatoshi Nagase in Go Riju's "Chloe"

In Japan, the romantic stroll on the beach, usually featuring a high-spirited plunge into the surf by the woman, is such a constant of both big- and small-screen love stories that young actresses starting out here would be well-advised to take swimming lessons.

Other cliches, however, are more Japan-specific, and Go Riju's new film, "Chloe," presents the entire catalog. Watching it, I remembered some items on my old list of things to be avoided in Japanese romantic dramas ("Beware sensitive heroes wearing white shirts") and came up with several others. A young woman wasting away from an unnamed, impossibly poetic disease is one. A piano plinking away, one wistful note at a time, through every tear-wrenching moment is another. Characters who laugh and smile bravely through every conceivable disaster and setback is yet another. ("I've lost my job, ha, ha, ha." "I'm dying," said while sweetly grinning.)

Worst of all, perhaps, are the okama (effeminate homosexual) sidekicks of the hero and heroine, who provide light comic relief, offer living proof of the said couple's hip, enlightened outlook -- and reinforce every stereotype about gays.

This is not to say that "Chloe" is badly made; director Riju ("Elephant Song," "BeRLiN") has put together a visually sophisticated, well-designed package aimed at young women who think they are ready for indie edge, but are really longing for a weepy drama about star-crossed lovers. "Chloe" is "Love Story" for the Shibuya crowd. (If you're too young to get the "Love Story" reference, don't worry: Ali McGraw died for my generation's sins -- she need not do the same for yours.)

The Chloe of the title is a young Japanese woman (Rie Tomosaka) whose unusual name is pronounced Kuroe. One day, at a shopping mall art exhibition, she meets Kotaro (Masatoshi Nagase), who is a program narrator at a planetarium. He is there at the invitation of his self-infatuated aunt, who has art on display. She came because she works at a shop in the neighborhood and apparently had nothing better to do on her lunch hour. They both hate the treacly pictures, find they are of one mind in other ways as well and fall in love, on the first date if not quite at first sight.

They have a jolly wedding at Kotaro's favorite pub, officiated by a cool hippie minister and attended by Kotaro's bohemian friends, including the voluble Eisuke (Shinya Tsukamoto) and his blowsy, busty lover Hidemi (Miyuki Matsuda). Kotaro feels so expansive on this happy occasion that he loans a big chunk of his savings to his pal Eisuke so he can pay off his debts. Eisuke has been borrowing from all and sundry to buy the works of a mysterious, oracular artist named Kitano (Shinji Aoyama).

The happy couple moves into a big new apartment with light streaming in and enjoys an idyll straight out of a soft drink ad. It doesn't last, of course. After a romp on the beach, Chloe collapses and is diagnosed with an unusual condition -- she has a growth in her right lung that looks like a flower bud. If it opens, the handsome young doctor (Hidetoshi Nishijima) warns Kotaro, Chloe will die. Fortunately, he is able to remove it, and Chloe takes it home as a souvenir of her ordeal. Then a similar growth appears in her left lung and the doctor says another operation is impossible. Chloe settles in to await the arrival of the Reaper.

One day, Hidemi comes to the apartment with a bunch of flowers. Kotaro notices that, when he brings the flowers near Chloe's "bud," it stops growing and she perks up. Soon he has filled the entire room with flowers, and Chloe makes a miraculous recovery. It doesn't last, of course. Kotaro, who has been neglecting his job at the planetarium to hustle up flowers for Chloe, gets his notice. When he goes to Eisuke for his loan, he finds that his friend has spent it all on more Kitanos. As Kotaro's bank account dips toward zero, the flowers disappear from Chloe's room and her condition worsens. What, short of moving into a flower warehouse, can he do?

The whole point of the film, however, is for Chloe to die beautifully and for poor, pure-hearted Kotaro to love her devotedly to the fated end. Meanwhile, the pub's pudgy okama master (Kazuhiro Fukuzaki) blubs all over his Hawaiian shirt, Eisuke cracks up spectacularly from grief and guilt -- and everyone in the audience reaches into her purse for a Kleenex.

Nagase, who has been making films for nearly two decades and playing boyish misfits far too long, is borderline creepy as Kotaro, pouncing on Chloe like a lost 5-year-old who has just found his mother and, after she becomes ill, slipping back and forth over the edge of hysteria.

But it is Tomosaka, as Chloe, who grates most, playing sweetness and light to annoying perfection. Her philosophical chipperness in the face of death is worthy of one of Charles Dickens' "legless virgins," those Victorian paragons of femininity only one step removed from the angels -- and entirely removed from the common run of humanity. Her full-lipped, pearly-toothed smile and girlish, lilting laugh smooth over every situation, but some situations deserve something resembling real emotion. That, though, might wither this film's pretty metaphoric flowers -- and we can't have that, can we?

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