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Friday, May 19, 2006


Some sounds of silence

Big River

Rating: * * * (out of 5)
Director: Atsushi Funahashi
Running time: 105 minutes
Language: English
Opens May 27
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Does your boyfriend have commitment problems? Do you find it hard to have a deep, emotional conversation with him? Perhaps you feel that deep down, he doesn't really care? If so, then see "Big River" to enhance those doubts and frustrations. Directed by Atsushi Funahashi, who lives and works in New York, "Big River" sets an enigmatic story to gorgeously lit and beautifully framed visuals. It was shot entirely on location in the Arizona desert and the Grand Canyon. Against that incredible backdrop, you'll almost feel that commitment issues are irrelevant. Almost.

News photo

Recalling Jim Jarmusch's "Stranger Than Paradise," this is an intriguing American road movie that just happens to be made by a Japan-bred director and to his credit he doesn't play up any exotic oriental cliches by making references to Japan. No Japanese words, phrases, props.

"Big River" is a story about the fragility of bonding and the dynamics of relationships forged on the road, where one's feelings and intentions are very likely to be misconstrued. It's about the vastness of the American Southwest and the boredom of a long, long car ride. Most of all, it's about the reluctance to commit oneself, whether to love or friendship, and the fear of getting too close.

This is Funahashi's second feature film after "Echoes," which alerted fans of the American indies movie scene to the fact that a new talent had emerged. While his debut work was shot in gritty black and white and was deliberately claustrophobic, "Big River" is about stunning primary colors and wide-open spaces, and the dialogue -- the screenplay was cowritten with cinematographer Eric Van Den Brulle -- is more sophisticated, if less revealing. The world of "Big River" is languid, but dry, where emotions take a long time to surface and many feelings are left unspoken. When the characters do connect, it feels precarious from the get-go and likely to shrivel into a brown crunch at any given moment under the mega-wattage of the Arizona sun.

Japanese backpacker Teppei (Joe Odagiri, currently one of the most visible actors in the Japanese media scene), it seems, is traversing the vast desert on foot with zero water supplies. Just as he is getting desperate, he runs into Pakistani tourist Ali (Kavi Raz), whose rental car has broken down. Teppei fixes the car, is treated to a diner lunch and is offered a ride. When Ali's car runs out of gas and Teppei offers to walk to the gas station for some fuel, Ali looks affronted when the backpacker asks for 5 bucks. The two have trouble communicating since Ali speaks only passable English; their way of dealing with one another in the confines of the car is to smoke as many cigarettes as possible. Then Teppei meets Sarah (Chloe Snyder), a leggy blonde local with awesome blue eyes. She takes them back to "my neighborhood," which turns out to be a trailer park, and Ali, whose idea of the wealthy United States is smashed in one stroke, turns to Teppei and asks: "What place is this?" to which Teppei can only reply: "How the hell should I know?"

Then it gradually comes out that Ali is there to find his wife, who ran away from him and is living with an American boyfriend. His face set in what seems to be permanent creases of worry and despair, Ali can't really relate to his newfound younger friends because they're living free and this is totally alien to him. Teppei talks gleefully of going to New York and from there to Iceland. Sarah is half in love with the Japanese backpacker and offers to accompany him. For Ali, Sarah's easygoing ways and spanking short shorts displaying miles of bare legs are an affront and so is Teppei's irreverence and noncommittal attitude. To Ali, the younger pair represent all that he hates and resents about the United States. In a freakish way he even holds them responsible for the fact that his wife (when he finds and confronts her) refuses to have anything to do with him.

And all this time the three talk and bicker in the car, and they smoke and smoke on, and try to fathom (privately) what sort of impact this trip might have on the rest of their lives.

Funahashi and Brulle's script is, at times, too restrained -- a bit more information and detail could have made "Big River" more satisfying. When Sarah asks Teppei after a fight: "You . . . don't like me anymore, do you?" Teppei looks away before mumbling: "Yeah, I do. It's just . . . I don't know . . ."

Teppei's ruthless good looks and drop-dead-hip secondhand military togs give him away as the commitment-phobic, style-over-content kind of guy that he is but beyond that, we don't have a clue to his personality. The same goes for the excessively fashionable Sarah, who in reality would never be found wasting away in the back of a trailer. All this is intentional on the part of Funahashi of course, and quite effective when offsetting the very real despair that festers within Ali. Still, compared to Van Den Brulle's textured, crafted visuals, which speak volumes with every frame, the characters seem skimpy, ready at any minute to get blown away by a single gust of desert wind.

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