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Wednesday, July 6, 2005

A little more Wilder please to really hit the mark

Unmei Janai Hito

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Kenji Uchida
Running time: 98 minutes
Language: Japanese
Opens July 16
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Kenji Uchida's "Unmei Janai Hito (A Stranger of Mine)" arrives at theaters here after netting three awards at this year's Cannes Film Festival, where it screened in the International Critics' Week section. Not the biggest prizes -- the Young Critics Award, SACD Screenwriting Award and something called the Grand Golden Rail Award (not to be confused with the Third Rail Award) -- but impressive nonetheless, especially given that Uchida was unknown outside local indie film circles prior to his Cannes triumph.

News photo
Yuka Itaya in "Unmei Janai Hito"

In 2002 he won the Pia Film Festival's Grand Prize for "Weekend Blues," a comedy about an 18-year-old boy who somehow loses two days out of his life after smoking a funny cigarette. Uchida used the prize money to make "Unmei Janai Hito," submitted it to Cannes and received the invitation letter many Japanese directors wait for all their careers, but never get.

Interestingly (or, depending on your place in the directorial hierarchy here, infuriatingly), "Unmei Janai Hito" is not a festival film, in the high-brow, deep-think sense. Instead it is a circularly plotted, slickly made relationship comedy that abounds with witty lines and twists, but has about much weight as a "Seinfeld" episode (which is not meant as a slam).

Uchida sees himself as a mainstream entertainer -- Billy Wilder is one of his idols -- whose talents lie more in casting the right actors and giving them funny things to say than in the nitty-gritty of lighting, shooting and cutting (for that he relies heavily on his staff, beginning with cinematographer Keiichiro Inoue).

He hasn't quite mastered the art of comic pacing and momentum, however, lingering too long in medium tempo, while his script, which doubles back on itself over and over for yet another point of view on a key scene, begins to feel gimmicky in a way that its model, Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction," did not.

But as a Hollywood calling card, as well as a comedy in a minor key for smart people, "Unmei" succeeds well enough. Next time, though, I hope Uchida takes more risks -- and releases more inner demons. You don't get to be Billy Wilder Jr., or even his Japanese cousin, always being Mr. Nice Guy.

As the film begins, a straight-arrow salaryman named Miyata (Yasuhi Nakamura) and a sad-sack girl named Maki (Reika Kirishima) have both been dumped by their respective lovers. Maki is left with only a 3,500 yen engagement ring, Miyata with a few boxes of stuff his ex deposited six months ago in his expensive new condo, which he had bought in anticipation of wedded bliss.

In the normal course of events, these two terminally shy folks would never meet, but Miyata's best buddy -- a wised-up private eye named Kanda (So Yamanaka) -- introduces the still-sniffling Maki to a protesting Miyata at a restaurant. To be more precise, he picks her up, hands her over to Miyata -- and then makes his escape.

One awkward thing leads to another and Maki, now homeless, ends up at Miyata's apartment. Gentlemanly to a fault, with no obvious thought of hanky-panky in his head, Miyata is settling her in for the night, when in waltzes the ex -- the leggy, slinky, cool-as-you-please Ayumi (Yuka Itaya). She has just come for her things, she says, but Maki, feeling in the way, makes her exit. Miyata, sensing the love of a lifetime slipping away, pursues her.

So far so romantically conventional, but the film now flashes back to earlier that evening -- and we start to see that nearly everything we know about Kanda and Ayumi, as well as a smiling, stylish yakuza boss (Sasuke Yamashita) who is now Ayumi's boyfriend, is wrong.

A complex con starts to unfold, involving a suitcase full of money, death threats and various other shenanigans -- all of which are tied together as neatly in the end as a Christmas ribbon at Takashimaya.

Another Wilder fan, Koki Mitani, stages similarly talky, twisty comedies, such as "Minna no Ie" and "Radio no Jikan," by keeping the energy level high and the actors mugging away. Uchida's approach is lower in key, while his characters are truer to life, if still verging on the stereotypical.

The most interesting is Maki, who comically blubbers and frets like Rachel Green in "Friends" (which again, is not a slam), but talks straight enough to keep Miyata -- and the audience -- from taking her too lightly.

The most worldly seems to be Kanda. "After 30, forget about meeting women naturally or by fate," he admonishes Miyata. "You aren't going to find them in the hall after class or at the school festival any more." In other words, step up to the plate, slugger. Fashionably dressed and bearded, with a smooth line of patter, Kanda is as good as his word, chatting up Miki with ease, but he is also less on the ball than he looks.

All five principals, in fact, turn out to be more complex than first impressions suggest, a testimony to not only Uchida's writing skills, but also the talents of Kirishima, Yamanaka and the rest of the well-chosen cast. I especially liked Yuka Itaya as the conwoman, Ayumi. Blithely unapologetic about her outrages and crimes, as slick and cool as chilled glass, Ayumi is the Darwinian principle personified. When the world ends, she and a few cockroaches will survive.

How would have Wilder, that ultimate survivor (and cynic), cast Itaya, I wonder? The Barbara Stanwyck role in "Ball of Fire?" The Greta Garbo role in "Ninotchka?" Note to Itaya's agent: Give this woman English lessons -- Wilder may be gone, but the world awaits.

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