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Wednesday, July 2, 2003

So action-packed, even the story takes a bashing


Rating: * * (out of 5)
Director: Ryuhei Kitamura
Running time: 109 minutes
Language: Japanese
Currently showing

Life isn't fair, is it? Ryuhei Kitamura, who has all of four full-length features to his credit, including the film under review, "Alive," now has a two-picture deal with Miramax, while Japanese directors who are many years and many films his senpai have zilch.

News photo
Hideo Sakaki in "Alive"

But Kitamura understands cool -- as defined by young males on both sides of the Pacific -- in a way that few of his colleagues do.

His films are not for anal-retentive cineastes, but for guys under 30 who have spent hour after hour battling video-game enemies; who forgive silly plots, overwrought acting and pretentious dialogue, as long as the characters wear the right leathers, the techno soundtrack fits the action groove and the fight scenes -- the whole point of the exercise -- make even the otaku go "wow"; who don't mind a blender-processing of influences, from manga to "The Matrix," as long as the final product holds their attention throughout.

It's easy to dismiss Kitamura as a clever operator with the required stock of technical tools and pop-culture references. Just plug him into the next Hollywood comic-book movie and watch the lines at the box office form, as the critics howl.

He has a talent, however, for creating excitement on the screen that many of his directorial seniors would die for. Filmed in 2001 and previously screened abroad, "Alive" is a low-budget thriller that unfolds almost entirely in two rooms, but shot for shot it concedes little to Hollywood SFX extravaganzas. No wonder Miramax rushed to sign this guy.

Miramax being Miramax, though, they will probably mold his product to meet their marketing plan. With Kitamura, this might not be a bad thing. He gives good action, but as "Alive" shows, he has a shakier grip on story, character and pacing. Harvey Weinstein no doubt knows a producer, scriptwriter and editor who can help.

The film starts with a condemned prisoner, one Tenshu Yashiro (Hideo Sakaki), about to be electrocuted for whacking six men who gang-raped his girlfriend -- and then after four months on the run, killing the girlfriend (to save her, he says, from "impurity"). The juice goes on, but Tenshu survives. Having passed this test of character (most prisoners die of fright, he is told, not from the weak electricity), he is invited to take part in an experiment. If he refuses they will zap him for real. When he accepts, the warden tells him he made the wrong choice. "Some things," he intones, "are worse than death."

Tenshu is promptly thrown into an ultra-modern dungeon with another prisoner named Gondo (Tetta Sugimoto), who has a rap sheet that makes Tenshu look like a serial shoplifter. Unseen researchers tell them that they cannot leave the room -- but can do anything they want inside it. Other than food and drink, they are given no distractions. The excitable Gondo starts climbing the walls and finally jumps the maddeningly phlegmatic Tenshu. Tenshu bashes Gondo senseless and is about to finish him off, but stops. A mistake, since Gondo is now determined to kill Tenshu. The researchers then decide to put the two guinea pigs to sleep for a while.

When they awake, they see that the shutter on one of the walls has been raised, revealing a thick glass panel and a woman standing seductively behind it. Called Yuriko (Ryo), she is a self-described "witch" who tells the eager Gondo that if he kills Tenshu, he can have her. Meanwhile, Tenshu is looking at Yuriko -- and seeing the image of his dead lover, Misako (Erika Oda). When he hears Gondo talking dirty to Yuriko/Misako, he attacks him with lethal intent -- and so it goes.

Yuriko, who is also the sister of one of the researchers (Koyuki), happens to be infected with an unexplained "alien substance" that gives her various superpowers, but eats away at her humanity. The researchers want to "infect" one of the prisoners with this substance -- and thus create a killing machine for the military. The would-be transferees, however, are less than cooperative. Then, a hard-shelled army adviser (Bengal) visits the test site and raises his own brand of bureaucratic havoc. Meanwhile, all Tenshu really wants is not to survive but to be absolved by his dead lover.

In the first hour, Kitamura tries hard to lay on the atmospherics. But after several near-fatal face-offs and sudden reality shifts ("Am I dreaming or awake -- or dreaming?"), my attention began to drift, as I though I were watching someone play an all-too-familiar combat game at Level One.

Eventually, Tenshu confronts the Ultimate Killing Machine. The ensuing action must have given the computer-graphics team a thorough workout, but feels insubstantial. The hero, after so many close encounters with the Other Side, is already half-way there himself. (The film's title ought to be "Alive -- or Dead?") Me, I was just longing for some fresh air, outside the confines of Kitamura's self-imposed prison.

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