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Thursday, Dec. 29, 2005


Indies good to go

In among the usual dross, there was an abundance of riches this year in Japanese films. One reason is that more films are being made and released -- the total should top last year's 310. Another is that, after a period of drift, the indie sector has produced an unusual number of strong films by both veteran and younger directors -- so many, in fact, that they have crowded out mainstream fare from my Best 10 list. Am I becoming a film snob in my old age? That's for you to decide, from the following selections:

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Faith and more are questioned in "Germania no Yoru"

1) "Germania no Yoru (Whispering of the Gods)": Tatsushi Omori's debut feature is a love-it-or-loathe-it proposition -- a plunge into dark sexual and moral waters that reveals all and spares nothing, against a backdrop of timeless natural beauty in wintertime Iwate Prefecture. Hirofumi Arai's powerful performance as an angry young killer who takes refuge at the rural Catholic monastery where he was raised -- and sexually abused -- anchors this disturbing, provocative film.

2) "Kuchu Teien (Hanging Garden)": Toshiaki Toyoda's black comedy features Kyoko Koizumi as a mother whose motto for her philandering husband and two dropout teenage children is "never tell a lie" -- though she ends up living one. A talented surrealist, who creates his strange, memorable images for emotional impact, not mere visual display, Toyoda strips away his family's masks like cellophane from a convenience store rice ball -- thoroughly, cleanly, coolly.

3) "17-sai no Fukei: Shonen wa Nani o Mita ka (Scenery of 17 -- What Did the Boy See?)": Inspired by an actual case, veteran Koji Wakamatsu's film about a teenage boy who murders his mother -- then flees north on a bicycle in the dead of winter, at first seems little more than spinning wheels and labored breathing. But as the boy racks up the kilometers, while encountering two elderly war survivors whose stories are even more harrowing than his, the film develops narrative momentum, poetic resonance and hypnotic power.

4) "Linda, Linda, Linda": A low-key, off-beat comedy about a girl rock band's frantic preparations for a school festival, Nobuhiro Yamashita's film shows us the way high school life actually unfolds, the tedium of band practice included. Yamashita also gets the way teens really relate to each other -- and how they can suddenly downshift maturity gears from 16 to 10 -- or upshift to 25.

5) "Umoregi (Buried Forest)": Kohei Oguri's first film in nearly a decade tells a multifaceted story about a rural village where little happens but the occasional festival -- or the arrival of a huge, fossilized egg from an extinct South American bird. Oguri's magic realism is easy-going, gentle-spirited and rooted in the everyday, but deeply magical nonetheless. Some films set out to disturb the spirit; this one buoyantly cleanses it.

6) "Unmei ja nai Hito (A Stranger of Mine)": Kenji Uchida's debut feature may have scooped four prizes at Cannes, but it is nonetheless straight-up, cunningly plotted entertainment. The story -- two shy, lonely strangers meet by chance (or rather by the introduction of the guy's private detective pal) at a restaurant and fumble toward love -- starts in a familiar romantic comedy groove. After the first act, however, it circles back to the beginning and, as it unfolds from other points of view, we realize that everything we thought we knew was wrong. The ensuing ride is clever, funny and -- especially if you happen to be a shy guy (or girl) yourself -- uplifting.

7) "Sekai no Owari (World's End/Girl Friend)": Shiori Kazama has made yet another in a long line of Japanese indie films about young bohemians trying to find love and purpose. Instead of the usual types, however, her sharp-tongued loner heroine and the various men she encounters come across as real, if quirky, personalities. Their romantic entanglements have an air of plausibility and engaging uncertainty. In filming them, Kazama uses phrases, gestures and objects that seem random or odd, but gain a deeper significance as we come to know the characters and their dilemmas.

8) "Pacchigi": Kazuyuki Izutsu's retelling of the Romeo and Juliet story is set in 1960s Kyoto, with the Japanese and Korean communities substituting, respectively, for the Montagues and Capulets. The awkward romancing between a moony Japanese boy and cute-but-tough Korean girl is interspersed with roughly comic, hyperviolent battles between rival Japanese and Korean gangs. It's raucous, entertaining fun, informed by Izutsu's street-level knowledge of his characters and their world.

9) "Hanai Sachiko no Karei na Shogai (The Glamorous Life of Sachiko Hanai)": "Pinku" film veteran Mitsuru Meike has made that rarity -- a hilarious wet dream for intellectuals. When a curvy sex worker takes a stray bullet to the brain from a North Korean hit man, her IQ suddenly jumps. She devours weighty tomes and seeks out one of her favorites writers, a weedy academic, for ecstatic sex and more. While serving up a sex scene once every 10 minutes, "Hanai Sachiko" satirizes everything from intellectual pretension to the foreign policy of George W. Bush with an endearing disregard for logic and good taste.

10) "In the Pool": Satoshi Miki's three-part comedy features a brilliant performance by Matsuo Suzuki as a staff psychiatrist at a large hospital who has no idea what is he doing, but does it anyway, with an unhinged gusto that somehow carries his patients/victims along, like leaves in a crazily shifting wind. Imagine the con man impudence of Groucho Marx and the antic moods of the younger Jim Carrey combined in one white-coated, leopard-pattern-vested individual.

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