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Wednesday, Dec. 25, 2002

The future, on the cheap

SF Whip Cream

Rating: * * *
Director: Takahisa Zeze
Running time: 95 minutes
Language: Japanese
Now showing

The Japanese film industry once avoided the science-fiction genre, reasoning that the budgets were too out of this world to compete with the best of Hollywood. Animation was the one, admittedly huge, exception -- and the Japanese proved to be good at it indeed, though for every "Akira" or "Ghost in the Shell" they made 20 silly space operas.

News photo
Shinji Takeda in Takahisa Zeze's "SF Whip Cream"

Now, with prices for sophisticated CG effects falling, local filmmakers have started producing live-action SF epics with mass audience appeal.

"Returner" was little more than a compendium of SF cliches, but at least it had the chutzpah to compete with Hollywood head-on. Among upcoming Japanese sci-fi films with similar ambitions are George Iida's "Dragon Head," about three high-school students who survive a bus crash and find themselves in a future world, and Takahisa Zeze's "Moon Child," about two troubled teens who sort out their various issues in a futuristic Asian city.

Another approach is to leave the CG geewhizzery to Steven Spielberg and make low-budget SF films that parody the genre, use it as a platform to talk about something else or try a combination of both. Zeze has chosen this last option for "SF Whip Cream," a film shot for what it costs to keep Tom Cruise in braces. Zeze's inspiration, in fact, was Georgi Daneliya's "Kin Dza-Dza," a 1986 sci-fi comedy made in the dying days of the Soviet Union, unseen by me, but undoubtedly made with a minuscule budget.

Formerly a successful director of soft-porn films, Zeze has recently been edging into the mainstream, but with a defiantly indie sensibility. This year's "Dog Star," about a dog who takes human form to search for the family that raised him, was his most commercial film to date, with a heartstring-tugging finale, but star Etsushi Toyokawa was an odd, introverted dog, whose bark was not as bad as his sarcastic bite. It was a funny, poignant take on the material -- but one too quirky to interest Hollywood in the remake rights.

"SF Whip Cream" is in a similar vein, but aimed more at Zeze's indie base. A slight, in-jokey film, it is less a parody of SF conventions than an offbeat essay on Japan's treatment of the outlanders in its midst. (Zeze originally planned to make a film about illegal Asian workers in Japan, but later shifted the setting to an alien planet.) The film has its pleasures, including inventive clowning by stars Shinji Takeda and Yutaka Matsushige and sets that look appropriately out-of-this-world, but it devolves into the sort of dota-bata (knock-about) comedy that more properly belongs on late-night TV. I would have enjoyed it more if it had unspooled in 60 minutes -- the length of one of Zeze's pink features -- instead of its 95-minute running time.

The story begins in 2035, when an abandoned infant is found and raised by two illegal aliens -- from another planet (though they are indistinguishable from the humans around them). Named Ken, he grows up with the TV as his babysitter and becomes enthralled with pro wrestling. His hero is Karl Gotch, a gaijin grappler from ancient times (i.e., the 1970s) who famously derided competitive sports as "s**t that give people nothing," while exalting pro wrestling as "whip cream," presumably for the sweet pleasure it affords its fans (as well as the promoters who profit from their gullibility).

Ken (Shinji Takeda) grows up to become a street dealer of a new-fangled designer drug. His career comes to an abrupt end, however, when his flamboyantly costumed boss (Yoshiyuki Morishita) suspects Ken of ripping him off and comes after him with lethal intent, but is rudely interrupted by government narcs. Ken opts for arrest by the latter over a bullet from the former and is told that, according to his ID card, he is an alien of the extraterrestial variety. An immigration official gives him a choice between prison and returning to his home planet -- and Ken chooses exile, even though he has to leave behind his human girlfriend, the sweet, loyal Ray (Kei Katayama).

He is accompanied on his journey by Hide (Matsushige), a long, lanky, short-tempered corrections officer. After a tiresome journey in a rust bucket of a spaceship, they arrive on Ken's planet, which looks like one of the more desolate regions of Earth. The natives live in dilapidated dwellings and speak a language consisting only of the phrase "wara wara" (Japanese subtitles are considerately supplied). Ken and Hide promptly set off to search for Ken's home village, accompanied by Kazu (Emiko Ikehata), a beautiful but strangely impassive local.

When this trio spends the night at the home of a friendly old couple, Ken gets frisky with Kazu -- who brushes him off in fluent Japanese. There is, he realizes, more to this planet than meets the eye. First, of all, Kazu turns out to be a guerrilla for a rebel army seeking to topple the planet's corrupt government. (She has another, more disturbing, secret, but why add a spoiler?) Second, the old couple are squatters in a radiation-polluted area that the government has declared off limits and, with Kazu and Hide's help, they have to go on the lam when troops arrive. Ken, who has been out wandering alone, is left behind. Freedom at last! But he has become attached to Hide and the others -- and goes looking for them.

Both he and Hide, we see, have found a new home -- and end up fighting for it (Hide because he has fallen hard for Kazu). They also discover, though, that they cannot easily cut their ties with Earth.

Their wrestling with these dilemmas verge on the absurd, but also make a serious, if not particularly subtle, comment on the nature of alienation. Ken, though a native of the planet, feels suspended between worlds -- his body is here, but his heart is elsewhere. Initially indignant to be stranded on such a godforsaken rock, Hide changes his mind after he meets Kazu -- and learns that his wife is cheating back on Earth.

The decision to set this drama on an alien planet in 2060 instead of Japan in 2002 was an inspired one -- "SF Whip Cream" is funnier as a result. As is often the case with Zeze's films, however, the story meanders, while the characters struggle to find a third dimension. This is not to suggest that he model his film on "Solaris," that solemn yet passionate SF masterpiece by another Russian director, Andrei Tarkovsky, but that he tighten and sharpen his script. In space, everyone can tell you've got nothing to say.

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