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Wednesday, May 7, 2003

Vampire fails to add bite to gangster flick


Rating: * * (out of 5)
Director: Takehisa Zeze
Running time: 159 minutes
Language: Japanese
Currently showing

Sometimes, reading the plot summaries of Japanese films, I wonder how the producer managed to sell them to gray-suited money men -- unless he slipped LSD into everyone's coffee before the pitch meeting. Of course, for most projects that require gray-suited money men -- i.e. movies at the upper end of the budget scale -- the package, not the plot, is the thing. If the producer combines the right best-selling novel or manga with the right hot director or idol talent, he's got a deal, even if the script would, with a bit of tweaking, make a good episode of "The Simpsons."

News photo
Gackt and Wang Leehom in "Moonchild"

This seems to be the case with "Moonchild," the new film by Takehisa Zeze. A veteran maker of "pink films," Zeze has often shown evidence of an unhinged mind in his straight features. His 2001 caper film "Rush!" scrambled narrative logic to the point of total confusion; watching the film was like stepping inside the mind of a dementia patient. His 2002 film "Dog Star" had a saner plot, if a wackier premise: Etsushi Toyokawa starred as a dog temporarily reincarnated in human form to search for his former master. As might be expected from Zeze, the film was not a comedy, but a romantic drama about star-crossed cross-species love.

He was thus the ideal -- or rather inevitable -- choice to direct "Moonchild," a combination yakuza, SF and vampire movie starring Gackt and Hyde -- two rockers who are like the Japanese younger brothers of early David Bowie. One imagines John Waters helming the Hollywood remake, but Zeze plays it straight, in all ways possible.

The lack of campness is not unexpected -- Japanese pop culture often mixes ingredients that the West would consider wildly incompatible, without cracking so much as a grin. But what would work perfectly well in an animation, in which all bets on reality are off, jars in the future world of "Moonchild," in which the sky is still blue and blonde Japanese rock stars spend scene after scene gazing soulfully into each other's eyes.

Also, Zeze and his collaborators have evidently been watching a lot of John Woo and "Moonchild" is suffused with Woo's brand of ultra-violence and stylish romanticism. There are lots of scenes in which the heroes -- looking as though they have just come from a Men's Nonno photo shoot, empty cartridge after cartridge of ammo into the bad guys in coolly choreographed synchrony. Problem is, we've been seeing the same thing for more than a decade from Woo and his Hong Kong imitators: Well, the vampire bit is a new twist.

The setting for this stew is Mallepa, a city in the "Asian Special Economic Zone," in the year 2014. Japanese live in a large refugee community -- one that is poor and despised. A gang of Japanese urchins, led by the brothers Sho and Shinji and their buddy Toshi, eke out a criminal living on the fringes of this community. One day, Sho encounters Kei (Hyde) -- a wounded and desperate vampire -- and takes him to the gang's hideout. Soon after, a gangster shows up to reclaim a money-filled briefcase the kids have stolen. He shoots Shinji, but Kei tears him to pieces and sucks him dry.

Flash forward a decade. Sho and Toshi have grown into enterprising young hoodlums, who are plotting to rip off a local Taiwanese gang. Kei, who has added not a wrinkle to his ageless face, goes along as their ally.

In the ensuing shootout, the boys run into Son (Wang Leehom), a Chinese freelancer with the same plan in mind. Though they start by pointing guns at each other's heads, they become friends and partners. Later, Son introduces Kei and Sho to his sister, Yi-Che (Zeny Kwok) -- and they both promptly fall for her. Yi-Che, however, is mute -- the result of a brutal gang rape. Her only means of expression is painting, at which she is highly talented.

This budding friendship and love triangle is violently interrupted by the Taiwanese gang, out for revenge. Kei disappears in the ensuing melee -- and is not heard from again.

Fast forward a few more years. Shu and Son are now on opposite sides of the gang fence, when Kei comes back into their lives, as a condemned prisoner. Vampirism, it turns out, is a crime punishable by death. Can anything bring back the good old days -- or will former friends and lovers be forever torn apart, spiritually and otherwise, by violence and death?

The friends-who-become-enemies theme is classic Woo, but Zeze further stirs the pot with the odd relationship of Sho and Kei: one mortal, the other not, but both bound by love for the same woman -- and for each other. There is not only the unintentionally steamy gay subtext -- these guys even have an intimate te^te-a-te^te in an open sports car in the moonlight -- but the distracting celebrity subtext. Both Hyde, the former lead vocalist for the glam mega-band L' Arc-en-Ciel, and Gackt, a solo performer with a long string of hit CDs, overwhelm their roles with their pop-star auras. They seem to exist in universes of their own, apart from not only the other actors, but also from the entire film.

Bowie, who had a similar stranger-than-life stage persona, was clever enough to play an alien in "The Man Who Fell to Earth" -- his first big screen role. Gackt and Hyde didn't necessarily make bad casting choices -- futuristic gangster and vampire are appropriately out-there roles -- but it would have helped if their director had had not only an appreciation for the bizarre, but also a sense of the absurd.

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