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Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2002

Hollywood players -- get on those phones!


Rating: * * * 1/2
Director: Hideyuki Hirayama
Running time: 119 minutes
Language: Japanese
Opens Oct. 12

Every once in a while, a Japanese movie comes along that cries out for a Hollywood remake. This does not mean the movie itself isn't worthy of American multiplexes -- those bastions of cinematic excellence -- but that the story is strong enough to survive the transition from Tokyo to, say, Seattle.

News photo
Mitsuko Baisho, Mieko Harada, Shigeru Muroi and Naomi Nishida in "Out" © MOVIE TELEVISION & SUNDANCE COMPANY

One example is Hideo Nakata's "Ringu," whose central premise -- a spirit-haunted videotape kills anyone who sees it -- seemed to have sprung full-blown from the collective 14-year-old consciousness. After the film became a hit at the Japanese and Asian box offices, Dreamworks bought the remake rights, and now we have "The Ring," directed by Gore Verbinski and starring Naomi Watts, hot after her Oscar-nominated performance in "Mulholland Drive."

Hideyuki Hirayama's "Out," a black comedy about three women who chop up bodies for cash, gave me a similar bound-for-Hollywood vibe -- partly because Hirayama's previous feature, the sci-fi drama "Turn," has already attracted Hollywood interest, but mostly because it has the kind of catchy plot line that grabs producers with short attention spans, while offering terrific roles for veteran actresses. Susan Sarandon, call your agent.

It helps that the film lives up to the promise of that plot, with spot-on casting, vibrant ensemble performances and a virtuoso turn by Hirayama, who understands both comedy and drama and can smoothly mix the two to entertaining effect. Though the mainspring of the story is a high-concept gimmick (thus making it a better one-sentence pitch to Hollywood), the film uses it not only to delve deeper into the women's relationships and souls, but also to examine a society in the throes of a decade-long recession. It's not a pretty sight, but Hirayama and company make it an absorbing -- and uncomfortably accurate -- one. As grisly as the three principals' new part-time job may be, who can say that, given their unpleasant alternatives, one would not do the same? They aren't so much comic caricatures as people we may know -- or be.

The film begins with four friends -- Masako (Mieko Harada), Yoshie (Mitsuko Baisho), Kuniko (Shigeru Muroi) and Yayoi (Naomi Nishida) -- working together at a boxed-lunch factory. But as monotonous as life on the o-bento assembly line may be, what is waiting for them when they arrive home is worse.

Masako is locked into a loveless marriage with a restructured salaryman, while trying to raise a sullen teenage son. Yoshie is a widow who spends her days taking care of her senile, bedridden mother-in-law. Scatter-brained Kuniko is a shopaholic who is hopelessly in debt to her friendly neighborhood loan shark, Jumonji (Teruyuki Kagawa). Button-cute Yayoi is eight months pregnant, but her husband beats her when he loses at gambling, a near daily occurrence. One day, after a particularly ferocious thrashing, she strangles the snoring brute -- until he stops breathing.

In a panic she calls Masako and begs her to help hide the body. Not wanting to see Yayoi carted away to jail just as she is about to deliver a child, Masako reluctantly drives over and, after much huffing and puffing, shoves the corpse into the trunk of the car. Yayoi, for whom out of sight means out of mind, stops going to work -- and tearfully asks Masako to dispose of the evidence, for a fee, of course.

A practical sort, Masako knows that dumping Yayoi's hubby is risky. The only thing to do, she decides, is to dissect him and chuck the pieces, in carefully wrapped packages, in dumpsters around the city. For this gruesome task, however, she needs a helping hand -- and calls on her best friend Yoshie to provide it, with money from Yayoi as a lure. Yoshie, who could use the cash for a much-needed vacation, agrees. Then, after Masako and Yoshie have dragged the body to the bathroom and are about to carve it up, Kuniko arrives in a flutter to beg for a loan. They enlist her, over her loud protests, and after donning plastic rain gear, goggles and surgical masks, the three women do the dirty deed.

Kuniko, however, is careless about disposing her assigned bundles. The crows arrive, followed by the police, who arrest the most likely suspect: a gangster who runs a casino where the victim ran up huge losses. The discovery of the remains also draws the attention of Jumonji, since the too-clever Kuniko asked Yayoi to guarantee her loan shark debt in lieu of payment -- and the doofus agreed. He puts two and two together, and comes to the women with a business proposition: There's this body, you see . . .

This is where many a Japanese director would go slapstick and cute, but Hirayama keeps "Out" firmly on the rails he first laid down for it. Though absurd complications ensue, the three women do not devolve into cartoons. Instead they become adept at their unchosen task and start to discover what really matters in their lives. Even the terminally clueless Kuniko begins to imagine an existence beyond Prada and Gucci.

This may sound like a typical chick flick second act, complete with righteous sisterly bonding, but it's not quite. Though targeted at women who fit the profile of the three principals (mature, experienced, frustrated), "Out" is less a revenge fantasy for over-25 females than a comic examination of human behavior at its most extreme, with the operative word being "human."

Scriptwriter Ui-shin Chung keeps this examination focused on the characters themselves, not plot points or abstract themes. Everything his odd quartet does makes a wacky sort of sense. They don't plunge into their gory dilemma so much as slide into it. Once they take the first, fatal step, they just keep going, straight onto thin ice. Watching them, it's hard not to feel sympathy, especially for Masako, the prime mover, who wants to do the right thing by a friend in desperate need and learns why no good deed goes unpunished.

The three leads -- Harada, Baisho and Muroi -- are veterans whose presence lends quality to even the direst material. Relative newcomer Nishida holds her own against this trio only by spending most of the film apart, in a ditzy universe of her own. Her impersonation of unconquerable selfishness is convincing enough, though -- and should comfort over-40s who want to believe in the blessings of maturity. But as "Out" illustrates so vividly, whatever your age, you'd better have that do-re-mi.

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