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Friday, Nov. 17, 2006

Lots of noise, but saying little

About a decade ago a spate of films appeared about young Japanese guys on the loose in America, enjoying freedoms hard to find in their conformist, rule-bound native land. But Takuo Yasuda's "Artful Dodgers" (1998), Yoshifumi Hosoya's "Sleepy Heads" (1997) and Masato Harada's "Painted Desert" (1994) were mostly projections of their directors' fantasies about life on the American margins, be it on the mean streets of New York or the great open spaces of the West. Romanticizing, stereotyping and stale movie referencing were rife.

Hazard Rating: (2 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
Joe Odagiri in "Hazard" (c) HAZARD PROJECT

Director: Sion Sono
Running time: 103 minutes
Language: Japanese
Now showing (Nov. 17, 2006)
[See Japan Times movie listing]

Not all these directors were tourists, but they tended to see their American environment through movie-referencing, Japan-centric filters. Taking away their Quentin Tarantino ("Pulp Fiction") and Percy Adlon ("Baghdad Cafe") tapes might have helped, but probably not much.

Sion Sono's "Hazard," a film shot in Japan and New York in 2002 but not released until now, is a throwback to this ethos, though Sono, a pioneer of the Japanese New Wave of the 1990s, who had a breakthrough hit in 2001 with "Jisatsu Circle (Suicide Club)," does not share his predecessors' mainstream ambitions. Filmed mostly with a hand-held camera and with one cut per scene, "Hazard" has a shot-on-the-fly, documentary feel.

While a fluid, accomplished shotmaker, who hurls the audience into the middle of his gritty New York milieu, Sono has a music-video director's idea of drama: His three principals are on a perpetual high, contact or otherwise, while never filling out beyond the sort of one-line descriptions found on movie fliers. "Hazard" is like a noise-band video clip, stretched out tiresomely to feature length, with a view of New York that derives more from secondhand images (or imaginings) than close observation. Sono's hero is Shin (Joe Odagiri), a college student fed up with his safe, bland existence in Japan circa 1991, who happens on a guide book to the world's "dangerous places" and fastens on a mythical criminal hotbed in New York called "Hazard." Enraptured by the thought of experiencing Hazard first hand, Shin hops on the next plane to the Big Apple -- and soon finds himself in big trouble, relieved of his knapsack and wallet by two hulking gangstas. Attempting to shoplift food from a deli in a poor neighborhood, he is swept up in a robbery of the place by two Japanese-speaking thieves, the short, motor-mouthed Lee (Jai West) and the tall, slow-witted Takeda (Motoki Fukami).

These inseparable partners in kicks and crime take in Shin much as they might a stray puppy -- and Shin is thrilled, if bewildered and not a little scared, by their attentions. This has the makings of a Candide-in-New-York comedy, but Sono goes the Godardian route of taking his scuffling heroes on their own self-inflated terms, as romantic, existential adventurers, cutting a bold swath through a world of marks and sharks.

Instead of the youthful wit and dash of "Breathless," however, "Hazard" trades on tired cliches of American (or rather pre-Guiliani New York) criminality and racism, while betraying attitudes close to those it is ostensibly condemning.

Lee is a particularly dubious creation. A self-proclaimed "half" (that is, half Japanese and half American) who chatters nonstop in Japanese and English, interspersed with whoops of intimidating delight, he embodies every negative Japanese stereotype of Americans in general and "half" kids in particular, being culturally rootless, morally corrupt and generally bad mannered. In other words, Shintaro Ishihara's worst nightmare brought to life -- though Sono considers him a divine monster of cool.

He and his pard Takeda's idea of the free, unfettered life is also questionable, financed as it is by selling drugs in the guise of ice-cream vendors and ripping off anyone and everyone, from deli clerks to jazz-club patrons. Even Tony "Scarface" Montana, the most voracious gangster in the history of film, had more class.

Meanwhile, Mike, a white hoodlum who lent Lee money and has been getting the upraised middle finger in repayment, decides to play rough and call for blue-uniformed help. As might be expected, he is an out-and-out racist, spewing his contempt of "yellow" lowlifes like a character in a World War II propaganda film. Shin's excellent adventure suddenly takes an ugly turn.

The ensuing action borders on the absurd, with the boys fleeing from a pursuing patrol car like marathon runners with a media van hovering in the background. But real cops, I thought, have been known to press the accelerator.

Odagiri, who was still on the verge of stardom when the film was shot, plays the clueless Shin with welcome touches of humor, including his studied indifference to the irritating advances of a Japanese expat girl. Such moments, however, are rare. Hiroyuki Ikeuchi is also quite good as a Chinese gangster, bringing a needed macho gravity to the over-the-top proceedings.

The film finally comes down off its giddy high to something resembling sobriety, as poor Shin, his circuits overloaded by Hazard City, USA, implodes. Candide no more, he acts out his version of the American nightmare. But Sono is no Scorcese and "Hazard" is no "Taxi Driver." Not that it doesn't try -- but why?

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