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Friday, May 29, 2009

It was a year of gore galore at Cannes

Special to The Japan Times

A surgeon's smock replaced the customary tux or evening gown at this year's Cannes Film Festival as the most appropriate attire, so drenched in blood and gore were many of the major entries. To walk the red carpet became a wade in viscera, film after film offering all manner of mutilation and dismemberment. The once disreputable horror genre was everywhere, crossing over into the rarefied realms of the art film, whether to reflect the dire state of the world, or to capture a fast disappearing audience with a version of torture porn.

So sanguinary were the proceedings that one fully expected Jane Campion's "Bright Star," an account of the romance between poet John Keats and neighbor Fanny Brawne, to breach its tone of genteel fervor with a great geyser of tubercular blood as Keats expires in Italy. (Blessedly, Campion left his demise off-screen, the effect all the more powerful for her discretion.)

Danish director Lars von Trier, ever the provocateur, worked his way out of personal depression by making "Antichrist," an intense and ultimately preposterous account of a marriage strained by the death of a child. The troubled couple retreat to an isolated cabin, none too subtly called Eden, to work out their problems, which soon escalate into macabre, and then gruesome, violence, the impaling and self-maiming enough to make fans of the "Saw" franchise flinch.

It took erstwhile shock-meister Michael Haneke to trump all this horror with a Strindbergian exchange between a bitter doctor and his mistress in "The White Ribbon," the verbal sadism far more appalling than any neighboring carnage.

In this extreme company, Quentin Tarantino's long-anticipated World War II farce "Inglorious Basterds," a title for which the term "sic" was invented, came off as comparatively delicate, despite mass immolations and rampant scalping.

"Enter the Void," by the ever-puerile Gasper Noe, also proved surprisingly restrained, given the director's infamous shocker of yesteryear, "Irreversible." In his tale of an American drug dealer and his sister afloat in Tokyo, Noe again attempts to free the camera from all constraints of time and space in his woozy rendering of the city through drugged-out eyes (the dealer's blinks are built right into the black-out editing) and a mash-up of past, present, and future in his increasingly twisty narrative. Noe reduces Tokyo to a series of squalid interiors: sex clubs, fetid apartments and dangerous nightspots, one of which, portentously called "The Void," lends itself to the film's blunt existential title. Faux-profound and often implausible — the dealer is shot dead by jumpy Japanese police in a single score drug raid — Noe's film nevertheless seems a model of authenticity next to another Competition film, Spanish director Isabel Coixet's "Map of the Sounds of Tokyo."

Made largely in Japanese, "Map" stars Rinko Kikuchi as a sullen, solitary worker at the Tsukiji fish market, who doubles as a hitwoman. (Moonlighting in a recession can be tough.) Hired by a Japanese magnate to avenge his daughter's suicide, she becomes smitten with her target, a Spanish wine merchant who had been the dead girl's paramour. Hardly the freshest slab of sashimi to begin with, "Map" takes a touristy view of Tokyo's temples, French-themed love hotels and ramen stands, and remains to the end highly contrived and never credible.

Judging from "Map" and her previous work, Coixet fancies herself a poet of loss, but no one can compete with the great Hirokazu Kore-eda on that front. Shut out from Cannes last year with "Still Walking," already something of a contemporary classic, Kore-eda returned to the Croisette toting his vastly inferior "Air Doll." Kore-eda has surprised us before, diverting from the muted tales of loss, death and remembrance that made his international reputation with the samurai film "Hana." Based on the graphic short story, "The Pneumatic Figure of a Girl" by Yoshiie Gouda, "Air Doll" similarly departs into territory seemingly unsuited to Kore-eda's fine, poetic sensibility. Part philosophical comedy, part societal critique, "Doll" stars Itsuji Itao as a middle-aged waiter who maintains a home with Nozomi, an inflatable sex toy, whom he tenderly washes, feeds, and does certain other things with. The doll suddenly comes to life, finds she has a heart, and begins to lead a second life, not as a hitwoman, but as a clerk at the local video store. (The latter allows Kore-eda to indulge in many cinephillic jokes and opinions, including homages to Kinji Fukasaku and Victor Erice.) When Nozomi falls in love with a fellow worker who also claims to be an air doll (Kore-eda regular Arata), the film segues, inevitably for this director, from an aura of wonder to one of imminent decease.

The doll who comes to life, the sprite who joins the living at great risk, has many antecedents, such as the ballet "Coppelia" and the opera "Rusalka," but Kore-eda employs the conceit to his own ends, exploring themes of lost innocence, stanched emotion, and states of solitude. The words "heart" (kokoro) and "substitute" play against each other throughout the film, reflecting Kore-eda's concern with humanity's preference for artificial, undemanding, and surrogate experience: DVDs instead of cinemas, video games instead of poetry, sex dolls instead of a real-life mate.

Given to continuity lapses and contradiction, Kore-eda's slight conceit cannot bear his burden of philosophic speculation. Nozomi inquires about old age, memory, and death, to which an old teacher, allegorically cast as Dispenser of Wisdom, replies that "Life contains its own absence, which only the Other can fill."

Overlong and sententious, "Air Doll" — in its closing sequences — also threatened to join Cannes' other bloody shockers, as Nozomi and her boyfriend enter into a sexual bond of mutual desecration, a kind of "Air no Corrida." Despite Kore-eda's usual weakness for cloying music, his film has many pleasures, particularly Korean icon Bae Du-na's uncanny performance as the air doll, and the precise cinematography of Taiwanese ace Mark Lee Ping-Bing, which replaces Kore-eda's signature style of static, symmetrical compositions with one of sinuous movement, as if to still itself for too long would invite deflation.

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