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Wednesday, June 25, 2003


Shoot 'em up, in bits

Five Bullets on Killers

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Various
Running time: 115 minutes
Language: Japanese
Closes June 27

Short films are hot now, after a long season of near banishment from commercial theaters.

News photo
Yui Nino in "Five Bullets on Killers"

Interestingly, two sets of Japanese filmmakers came up with the same basic idea for putting shorts on the screen, at almost the same time. Zoologist Richard Dawkin's theory of memes -- ideas that spread from mind to mind like viruses -- seems to be the only explanation.

The first group, led by director Masato Shinozaki, celebrated the movie detective in its four-part "Deka Matsuri (Detective Festival)" omnibus series, in which all the films are 10-minute shorts (the last two parts were recently reviewed here). The films are essentially cinematic games played according to certain rules: i.e. the hero must be a detective, there must be at least five gags, etc.

Among the players in this group are some of the biggest names on the indie scene, including Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Shinji Aoyama and Hirokazu Kore'eda.

The second group, led by animator and director Mamoru Oshii ("Ghost In the Shell," "Avalon"), is more into hardcore action; instead of bumbling keiji (detectives), the heroes of their omnibus, "Five Bullets on Killers," are all hit men (or hit women). The impetus for this project was the "Gun Action Short Movie Competition," a biannual contest sponsored by Gun magazine.

Three contest judges -- Oshii, manga artist and director Kazuhiro Kiuchi and scriptwriter and director Shundo Okawa -- proposed a cinematic battle royal between them and recent contest winners. In other words, amateurs vs. pros, with the results to be screened on satellite television and released on video. For various reasons, the project has since morphed into a five-part omnibus film, with the contest aspect eliminated. Just as well, because the results might have embarrassed the pros.

Or perhaps, I should say, two of the pros. Oshii has combined his obsessions with guns, babes and junk food into the strongest and simplest film of the lot, which plays like an erotic daydream-cum-food commercial. It's also an object lesson on how to hold the screen with minimal means. All you really need, Oshii shows us, is a hot babe, a big gun and plenty of fresh omusubi.

Yui Nino plays a lanky, leggy hit woman assigned to pop an embezzling film producer (played by Toshio Suzuki, the real-life president of Studio Ghibli). Trundling a wooden crate behind her with a businesslike air as though she were heading for the executive class check-in at Narita, she saunters into a large empty room. There she proceeds to methodically unpack a 50-caliber gun. This monster weapon (making its "first-ever appearance in a Japanese film," the program proudly announces) fires sleek-looking shells that blow gaping holes through metal and obliterate anything in their way.

Before her target comes into sight, the hit woman kills time by eating convenience-store junk food. That, in sum, is the film: Watching Nino chomping her way through bag after bag of rice balls, pastry, hot dogs and other snacks and washing it all down with bottled water.

Oshii considerately provides the name, manufacturer and price of every item consumed -- even totaling up the calories at the end. The effect is cumulatively funny and insinuatingly sexy, with the food serving as foreplay to the explosive climax -- though I did wonder how Nino managed to tear into the 20th plastic wrap with the same zest as the first.

The other four directors are equally in love with firepower, but are more conventional in their approach to both action and comedy.

The first on the program, Kiuchi contributes "Pay Off," whose hero, Izumi (Nobuyasu Sakai), is a swaggering, strutting hit man posing as a gun buyer.

His target is a smooth-talking dealer (Hunt Casey) whose three assistants are all babes with deadly arms and lethal martial art skills. They meet in a deserted underground parking lot, where the dealer has Izumi thoroughly searched. He now has no weapons to carry out his objective. Is he simply a fool with a death wish -- or does he have a lethal trick up the sleeve of his Aloha shirt? The resulting action is slick, if stereotypical; Kiuchi now has the calling card he needs to invade Hollywood -- and direct the next Vin Diesel movie.

The second segment, "Candy," by Okawa, has a sexier premise and a cleverer story line. Megumi (Maya Hoshino) is a former OL who decides to interview for a cabaret job. The fleshy owner (Shoichiro Akaboshi) tells her that he wants to "test" her before hiring her. Enough to say that the "test job" is a hit on a stranger -- and she accepts it, against the advice of a former colleague and close friend (Asuka Shimizu). The job, however, takes an unsettling turn -- as does the friendship.

As befitting a film by a scriptwriter, "Candy" is full of punchy dialogue and plot twists. The real payoff, however, is watching Hoshino, who looks as though she should be modeling for Vogue but puts in a surprisingly athletic and gutsy performance as a first-time hit woman. Michelle Liu, move over.

Takanori Tsujimoto, the director of the third segment, "Perfect Partner," clearly has Quentin Tarantino on the brain. His heroes, Yoshi (Kanji Matsutani) and Hide (Yoshiaki Araki), are a pair of hit men on the run whose logorrheic schtick is a mix of manzai and "Pulp Fiction." They are being pursued by insanely persistent gangsters, which is fair enough, but they are also traveling with a cute pizza-delivery girl (Yukiko Saitani), who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Naturally, when the gangsters catch up, things go wrong.

Fresher and funnier is Shuji Kawata's "Killer Idol." A failing talk-show host (Hiroo Odaka) interviews a cowboy-hatted hit man, "Dandy Nakao" (Kawata), who has "retired" after a long, bloody career in the United States.

The host loathes being lowered to such sensationalism, while the hit man senses danger in the studio. As the interview devolves into deadly farce, the gags come in quick, smart succession, while Odaka and Kawata turn in amusingly overripe performances as the dueling duo.

Along the way, "Killer Idol" satirizes the cult of gun coolness that the other films celebrate (though with varying levels of irony). In Japan, it seems, even gun otaku can laugh at themselves. I wonder about the NRA?

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