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Friday, March 6, 2009
A plastic take on Asian gangsters in Brazil
By KAORI SHOJI
You can take the boy out of Tokyo but you can't take Tokyo out of the boy. Jo^ Odagiri, currently described by the Japanese media as "the most Tokyo-like of actors" stars in "Plastic City," an ambitious, multicultural project by Nelson Yu Lik-Wai (best known as director Jia Zhang-Ke's cinematographer) that is set in Sao Paulo.
Odagiri's presence, along with costar Anthony Wong Chau-Sang, gives this international work a curiously Asian flavor. Whatever "Tokyo-like" may actually mean, it's true that whenever Odagiri is in the frame, for example, the setting begins to exude a backstreet Azabu ambience. You almost expect him to stop by a takoyaki (battered octopus balls) stall with a can of Yebisu beer in hand; while Wong whiffs of exotic Chinatown, but it's more a subtle aftershave, muted and less obvious. Together, they achieve a familiar chemistry: a mixture of Asian machismo and an emotional neediness undercut with self-deprecation.
Odagiri plays Kirin, who was a Brazilian-Japanese orphan wandering in the Amazon forest when Brazilian- Chinese gangster Yuda (Wong) found him, took him home and adopted him. Years later, Kirin has matured into Yuda's fiercely loyal right-hand man. The pair are probably the least threatening gangster duo on Earth: At the start they come off more as benevolent fashion models on a mission to improve the life of their small community — developing properties, creating employment, saying hello to the coffee vendor with terrific smiles. Everyone in the Sao Paulo underground has a good word to say about this father-son team, but their empire is shattered when the federal government instigates a crackdown.
Yuda is arrested, a huge chunk of their profits are confiscated, and rival gang lords begin to circle like vultures. Not one to go down so easily, Kirin launches a counterattack, revealing an unexpectedly cruel side to his nature. The film takes this opportunity to take style to stratospheric levels. In one scene, Kirin, decked out head-to-toe in a suit that would make fashion designer Tom Ford drool, feeds the dog of a corrupt official to a crocodile with his fine, handsome features completely composed. He's silent here, which is a good thing, as the rest of the dialogue is encumbered by a combination of awkward Portuguese spoken by Asian actors with no knowledge of the language, and obvious dubbing.
The question (or dilemma) is: Does the carefully construed visual flow compensate for the film's gaping flaws and obvious plot holes? To call "Plastic City" an art-house film would be the understatement of the decade, but the art is all poured into the way the film looks, and not much else. Yu does some impressive things with texture, comparing Kirin's smooth skin, artfully decorated with black spiky tattoes, with the junky, plasticky (but wildly fun) building interiors that, in his view, define Sao Paulo. The attempt to observe the behavior of Asians against the background of the world's newly emerging cities are far less successful. Kirin and Yuda rely on connections, bribes and trade-offs of services rendered to survive, and the Asian underworld ubiquitousness of it all is depressing, even with the Amazon jungle thrown in.
"Plastic City" is an extremely good-looking film, the cinematic equivalent of a Jean Paul Gaultier runway collection just before he went mainstream. Yu's frames are submerged in deep greens and stark reds, and everything is lit by a gorgeous frosty light, making Sao Paulo look jazzily retro and futuristic at the same time. Everything seems calculated to whet some instinctive appetite for conspicuous consumption or to titillate the senses in a particularly nerve-racking way.
But like a flawlessly put together fashion show, Yu might know how to trigger desire, but takes no responsibility for satisfying it. But viewed as a cerebral striptease, the film certainly does have its moments. Come to think of it, Odagiri has been playing such noncommittal/cool-dude kind of roles for a long time ("Big River," "Yureru"), the type of guy that comes on sweet but makes no promises and doesn't even think to deliver. No wonder all the women in the film (with thankless, insignificant roles) look so cranky.