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Wednesday, Oct. 22, 2003

Dueling with the beast within


Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Running time: 107 minutes
Language: Japanese
Currently showing
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Some directors keep making the same movie over and over. Others, after becoming known for a certain type of film, struggle to escape their own typecasting. Kiyoshi Kurosawa falls into neither category.

News photo
Koji Yakusho (times two) in "Doppelganger"

Early in his career, while making genre films for the video market, Kurosawa developed a distinctive style notable for its indirection, economy and sure grasp of dream logic. No matter what the story, be it revenge ("Hebi no Michi," 1997), the search for a serial killer ("Cure," 1997) or the end of the world ("Kairo," 2001), Kurosawa creates an atmosphere redolent with dread, in which the barrier between the real and the unreal, the living and the dead becomes terrifyingly permeable.

This atmosphere -- at once dreamlike and mundane -- has the feel of inner reality, as though Kurosawa is giving shape to his personal demons, demons whose features have remained remarkably consistent from film to film.

At the same time, Kurosawa is not serving up variations of a formula, but constantly shifting his angle of approach, while conjuring fresh "what if" situations. For "Kairo (Pulse)," he came up with a high concept -- ghosts coming out of computers -- that might have sold at a Hollywood pitch meeting. In this year's "Akarui Mirai (Bright Future)," his central metaphor -- a poisonous jellyfish -- was simple enough, but his story was as shape-shifting as the jellyfish itself. Critics at this year's Cannes Film Festival, where it screened in competition, proclaimed themselves baffled and it left without a prize.

Kurosawa's new film, "Doppelganger," is closer to "Kairo" than "Akarui Mirai" on the pop/art scale. The premise -- an overstressed engineer (Koji Yakusho) starts to see his own double -- has fictional antecedents going back to Edgar Allen Poe and beyond. Writers of the stature of Goethe and Guy de Maupassant reported encounters with their own doppelgangers, long fueling paranormal speculation about the reality of such beings beyond the printed page -- or movie screen.

The engineer, Michio Hayasaki, is attempting to build a wheelchair with robot arms that are controlled by impulses from the brain. A star at the medical instruments maker for which he works (10 years before he invented a blood-pressure device that earned tons of money), he has high hops expectations riding on his latest contraption. Buckling under the pressure, he lashes out at not only his assistants but also his boss, the phlegmatic-but-understanding Murakami (Akira Emoto).

At the end of his tether, he encounters his doppelganger (Yakusho) briefly at a coffee shop and later, more gut-wrenchingly, in his own apartment. He dismisses it as a figment of his imagination (or a sign of a mental breakdown), but the doppelganger is persistent: It has come, it says, to help.

And help it does -- by trashing Hayasaki's lab. No more lab, it reasons, no more stress. When that bit of assistance results in Hayasaki's dismissal, the doppelganger pitches in again by carting off the wheelchair and hiring a new assistant, a dodgy-looking, if determined, man named Kimijima (Yusuke Santa Maria).

From here the film becomes a waking dream -- or rather nightmare. Events unfold in a matter-of-fact way, but their contents are impossibly bizarre. Hayasaki becomes involved with the pixie-faced Yuka (Hiromi Nagasaki), who is similarly vexed by her dead younger brother's doppelganger. Hayasaki's doppelganger has a solution -- kill it. He also murders and robs to find money for Hayasaki's research. In short, the doppelganger is Hayasaki's id -- acting out desires Hayasaki has repressed and denied. It is also growing intolerably in power and influence. Who will be the winner in this struggle for a soul: Hayasaki or his diabolical twin?

Viewed solely as a psychological thriller, "Doppelganger" soon becomes tediously preposterous. Kurosawa makes no attempt to persuade us, with editing tricks or computer-graphics effects, that we are seeing something conceivable in the real world. Instead, by directorial jujitsu, he uses the techniques of naturalism to create a dreamlike realm of pure psychodrama, in which the social barriers between impulse and action have weakened or dissolved.

Hayasaki begins the film with all the usual inhibitions. Despite his outbursts, he realizes that he is dealing with, not a clone, but a shadow self that is moving, with cool insolence, into the light. In the third act, his battle with this doppelganger threatens to devolve into a car chase straight from an action film, including that genre cliche: a metal suitcase of money. Kurosawa, however, is not trying to pump up excitement. Instead, he is bringing "Doppelganger" to its inevitable conclusion, with the evil entity closing in, inexorably, on the dreamer. He might have done it with more efficiency (a subplot revolving around Murakami's reappearance distracts), but he never completely wakes us from his dream.

He gets able support from Koji Yakusho, a Kurosawa regular after appearances in "Kairo," "Korei" "Charisma" and "Cure." In playing Hayasaki and his doppelganger, Yakusho must rely only on his acting skills to distinguish the two; in appearance, they are exactly alike. Where another actor would have resorted to caricature, Yakusho brings his doppelganger to life with little more than an impish gleam in the eye -- that nonetheless chills. Sometimes he deliberately blurs the distinction between the two, to even creepier effect. What is more horrifying: to glimpse your doppelganger, emerged from some inner hell, or to realize that you and it are becoming, forever, one?

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