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Friday, Feb. 13, 2009
'Heaven's Door'/'Lost Girl'
Directors give romantic dramas a new twist
Youth, illness and love are the basic ingredients of many a movie, especially in Japan, where romantic dramas about dying teenagers are about as common as convenience stores.
The two films under review this week, Michael Arias' "Heaven's Door" and Daisuke Yamaoka's "Lost Girl," try variations on this formula, with widely varying success.
As for "Heaven's Door," a reworking of the 1997 Thomas Jahn film "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," the most obvious variation on the local norms of the genre is the director, an American who trained under special-effects maestro Douglas Trumbull in Hollywood before coming to Japan nearly two decades ago to work as a CG artist and software designer. Arias made his directorial debut in 2006 with "Tekkonkinkreet," an anime whose heroes are two street kids running wild in a fantasy cityscape straight from the Showa Era (1926-1989).
The new film is live action, but with a similar live-free-or-die theme.
Masato (Tomoya Nagase), a struggling musician turned part-time garage mechanic, is not only fired from his job, but also learns that his pass-out-with-pain headaches are caused by a brain tumor. Given a medical death sentence in his 20s, he is in despair when he meets Harumi (Mayuko Fukuda), a spunky 15-year-old girl with terminal bone cancer, in the hospital where they are both being treated.
After getting wasted on tequila in the hospital kitchen (where they conveniently find ample supplies of salt and lemons), Masato and Harumi decide to escape to the sea, which Harumi has never seen. Fortunately, they find a luxury sports car in front of the hospital, left unattended by a pair of inept security guys for the president of a sinister cultlike company. They hop in and zoom off, but the cops and company goons are soon in hot pursuit.
The original film by Jahn had a certain crafty humor, but Arias's has none. Instead, it is a kool-kid fantasy, filmed in fashionably desaturated colors, about two beautiful people enjoying a first-and-last taste of the highlife, funded by cash Masato first robs from small businesses, and then finds in a big, bill-packed box, in the trunk of the car.
He suffers seizures, in which he glimpses The Other Side, but their aftereffects are no more serious than a few extra shots of Jose Cuervo.
Age-inappropriate romantic vibes are thankfully absent — the Masato-Harumi relationship is inspired by the equally platonic one between the hit man (Jean Reno) and girl (Natalie Portman) in "Leon" — but the story recycles tired tropes of that done-to-death subgenre: Films about doomed young lovers on the run from the law.
In "Lost Girl" the title character is not dying but depressed after a customer at her fancy Western-style restaurant falls ill with food poisoning, and she is held responsible.
Kyoko (Makiko Watanabe) hides herself in a closet, where she lives on snack food, while spitting up the more nutritious fare her nervous husband Daichi (Hiroshi Yamamoto), a co-owner of the restaurant, tries to feed her. She is, however, anxious to win back her lost pride, as well as her job, but her first attempt to reconcile with her former colleagues, including a contemptuous chef, Sakai (Ken Ishikawa), goes badly, and she retreats into her closet again.
Soon after, though, she has a violent argument with Daichi, and seeks comfort with a prickly artist friend, Yuka (Ami Tanabe), who spurns her.
This may sound like a depressing film about depression, but director Daisuke Yamaoka keeps the tone surprisingly light, as if the characters are, underneath the barbs and blows, playing an elaborate charade. The gamelike nature of the story becomes more apparent as certain phrases and actions are repeated again and again, with a straight face at first, then again as parody.
Kyoko, we see, is ill from not only professional shame, but also personal stress and sexual confusion. Who does she really belong with: Daichi or Yuka? A filmmaker whose 2004 gay-themed short "Mika and Jun" screened widely at festivals here and abroad, Yamaoka may be a shade too satisfied with his own cleverness, but his film is packed with sharp observations on the failures of contemporary twentysomethings to truly communicate, sexually as well as verbally.
A souffle, however lovingly made, doesn't quite say it all, does it?