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Friday, June 9, 2006

These are the things that dreams are made of

Jasmine Women

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Hou Yong
Running time: 129 minutes
Language: Cantonese
June 17
[See Japan Times movie listings]

9 Lives

Rating: * * * (out of 5)
Director: Rodrigo Garcia
Running time: 119 minutes
Language: English
Opens June 1
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Dreams are quite dangerous things. True, without them, life would be unbearable: We can only find happiness through imagining it first, then trying to attain it. The dream sustains, it guides and inspires. But what of those who glimpse their dream, only to drop it, to see happiness seep through their fingers? "If we are to have intense pleasures," as philosopher Alan Watts has written, "we must also be liable to intense pains."

News photo
Ziyi Zhang in "Jasmine Women"

"Jasmine Women" (called "Jasmine no Hana Hiraku" in Japan) -- a film by director Hou Yong (regular cameraman for Zhang Yimou) -- presents us with three generations of Shanghai women to ram that point home. Ziyi Zhang ("Sayuri") appears in three separate roles: Mo, a star-struck cinema fan in the 1930s; her daughter Li, a bright young thing experiencing the early days of the revolution in the '50s; and Li's daughter Hoa, a student during the changing '80s.

Mo works in her mother's photo studio in the '30s, devouring movies and glossy magazines full of stars. One day her dreams of cinematic fame appear to come true, when a cigar-smoking, slick-suited producer walks into her shop and asks her to audition. Mo's mother (Joan Chen) can spot a shark, but then as now, when have girls ever listened to their mothers warning about Prince Charming? Cue one lesson from the school of hard knock-ups. When the Japanese invade the city (sorry: can we still say "invade," or has the LDP passed a law against this yet?), Mo's Sugar Daddy flees, leaving her in the lurch, the only option being to return home with her tail between her legs.

The next chapter begins with Mo at her mother's age (Joan Chen, again) with a love-struck daughter of her own to handle. Li falls for the captain of her school's basketball team, but her romantic dream runs into the reality of living with her in-laws and the pressure to bear a child. Her troubled love ends up being even more ruinous than her mother's. Last up is Hoa, who also manages to pick the wrong guy and end up a single mother. You start to feel that it's in their genes.

Hou thankfully spares us any tricky cross-cutting and tells his story in a clear-cut linear way, each part building on what came before it. Reflecting a style popularized in his mentor Zhang's films (notably "Hero"), Hou uses bold color schemes to clearly delineate the eras: the '30s by lush greens and sensual turquoise, a ripe sensuality that wouldn't feel out-of-place in a Wong Kar-wai film; the '50s in the bold reds and yellows of communism; and the '80s in deep, moody indigo and other shades of blue, the Michael Mann color of urban isolation.

Ziyi Zhang, for her part, sketches out three fairly different women economically and skillfully. This could have been show-offy, but the use of the same actress for all three seems deliberate. Times change, looks change, society changes, but somehow people don't. The dream of romantic love that strikes down Mo comes right back in Li and Hoa, with similarly bitter results. "Jasmine Women" is a film of bad choices, but one that keenly observes the geometry of its relationships, how fractured mother-daughter relationships can throw the girls into the arms of the first guy they fall for; God forbid they should end up old and alone like mom. Well, like they say, history repeats.

* * * * *

Director Rodrigo Garcia triples the dosage with "9 Lives" (titled "Utsukushii Hito" in Japan), a collection of stories looking at some acutely poignant moments in the lives of nine women. Separated by age, class, race, and temperament, the only constant here is what Alan Watts said; love, invariably, ends in pain.

News photo
Joe Mantegna and Kathy Baker in "9 Lives"

Garcia has a compact, minimalist style -- more streamlined even than his acclaimed "Things You Can Tell Just By Looking At Her" -- with each scene composed as one shot, one cut. (Only once, at the very end, does he break this rule, and to great effect.) His stories are sleek and to the point, and when they work, they evoke a feeling of common, shared experience. Sure, it's Robin Wright Penn who's pregnant and meeting a long-lost flame by chance at the supermarket -- her mind exploding with conflicting feelings of love, regret, resent, and wariness -- but Rodrigo knows that half the women in the audience will have walked in her shoes.

The casting is impeccable, and once again, Garcia attracts a galaxy of stars -- Sissy Spacek, Holly Hunter, Glenn Close, etc. -- by offering real parts for women over 35, a rarity in U.S. cinema. Garcia's only as good as his writing, though, and as the son of Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, expectations are high. He hits a few out of the park, but he also swings at air a lot too. Hunter is terrific as a woman trying to maintain her dignity while her relationship melts down all too publicly -- the dialogue is sharp and real. But then we cut to Amy Brenneman confronting her ex-husband at a funeral, and his successful come-on line to her is "I masturbate thinking of you." Not gonna happen. Garcia is also unable to rein in some of his actresses' hysterics -- Lisa Gay Hamilton and Kathy Baker will test your patience.

And yet, the closing piece, a two-hander between 59-year-old Glenn Close and 12-year-old Dakota Fanning, where they visit the grave of a loved one, is remarkably good, and also the only time Garcia indulges in a bit of the "magic realism" his father is known for. It's a dirty trick, using a bit of fantasy to sucker-punch us after a film's worth of realism, but you'll be too impressed to care.

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