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Wednesday, Nov. 27, 2002

The gods must be crazy, or at least love riddles


Rating: * * * *
Director: Yukihiko Tsutsumi
Running time: 119 minutes
Language: Japanese
Now showing

When I was a kid, I thought it might be neat to be a god. Not the kind who sits on a throne in the clouds hurling thunderbolts, but the type who stumbles upon a remote tribe untouched by Western civilization and is proclaimed The Great White One by the locals. But as I read more on the subject, I realized that as royally as those tribes may have treated their gods -- the fine clothes, the feasts, the nubile maidens -- in the end, they often sacrificed them. After the life of Riley, the knife in the gut or the plunge over the cliff. No thank you.

News photo
Hiroshi Abe and Yukie Nakama in "Trick"

But the job still attracts applicants, as Yukihiko Tsutsumi's witty comedy "Trick" makes clear. Based on a late-night TV show that became a cult hit, the film is set in a Japanese mountain village where the last century has barely penetrated, let alone the present one. The villagers may have the outward trappings of modernity, including a cable TV station, but in their cosmology, ancient beliefs live on -- and new gods still appear. That three of the village's four contenders for godhead happen to be con men, and the other a failed magician, is about par for the course.

Some filmmakers would approach this subject with anthropological objectivity or New Age-y awe. This film's approach is closer to that of "The Beverly Hillbillies" -- yokels as figures of fun. But the villagers aren't as credulous as they look: Before they go down on their knees, they want to be sure they are getting the real thing. An attitude that ought to be more common in the world at large, but lamentably isn't.

While satirizing the human obsession with gods, false or otherwise, "Trick" abounds with brain teasers and plot twists that are more amusingly clever than irritatingly obtuse -- and make for two hours that are more entertaining than the typical Hollywood thrill ride.

That said, "Trick" is still mostly a TV show writ large, with too many close-ups that may look fine on the small screen, but have a claustrophobic effect on the large one. Yukie Nakama is a talented actress, but I could have done without the intimate views of her nostrils.

She plays Naoko Yamada, who is following in the footsteps of her acclaimed magician father, but can pull a pigeon out of a hat more easily than she can draw a crowd. In quick succession, she loses her job and her apartment. (The landlady plans to tear down the building and put up a new one too fancy for her to afford.)

At this all-time low point in her life, she is approached by a strange couple with bumpkin accents (which, as it turns out, are from no real part of the country). They come, they say, from Itofushi-mura, a village deep in the mountains, and they want her to play a kamisama -- a living god.

There is a legend, you see, that once every 300 years a huge turtle appears and wreaks havoc in the village -- and this year marks the 300th anniversary of the last visit. Naturally, the villagers are worried, but they also believe that if they perform the proper ceremonies, a kamisama will come to save them. The couple, who together run the village's Youth Association, want Naoko to perform her magic and, hopefully, put the villagers at ease. At first reluctant to participate in this scam, she comes around when the couple offers her an envelope full of cash.

Soon after comes a phone call from a certain Jiro Ueda (Hiroshi Abe), a tall, scraggly haired physicist who wants Naoko to perform for him and three of his high school classmates at a reunion in a ryotei (teahouse). The classmates, now elite bureaucrats all, turn out to be insufferable twits who treat poor Naoko with all the consideration due a performing seal. She leaves the reunion furious at Ueda for subjecting her to such humiliation.

Her troubles, however, are far from over. Arriving in the village, she learns to her dismay that she is not the only kamisama candidate: Three others have preceded her. She will have to best their exhibitions of godly powers -- or be put to death. Having only tricks up her sleeve, she is terrified, until she hears a familiar voice in the shadows. It is Ueda, who has secretly come to the village to investigate the last message of a classmate at the reunion, who died mysteriously in the ryotei toilet.

Enough to say that the godjob interview cum life-or-death contest is good fun, especially if you enjoy solving puzzles that rely more on mental power than smoke and mirrors. The complications that ensue, including revelations about the odd couple and the discovery of the truth behind the turtle legend, are way over the top, but the film never loses its dryly sardonic tone.

Monty Python fans, I think, might enjoy this movie. After "The Life of Brian," "The Ascension of Naoko" -- though the real kamisama turns out to be . . . well, enough to say that "Trick" saves some of its best tricks for last.

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