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Friday, Oct. 2, 2009

'Akumu no Elevator'

Getting mugged at the movies


Movies are confidence tricks played on willing victims. The bullets are blanks and the sex is faked, but we usually want to believe, as long as the lights are down, that it's all real. Creating that belief — or rather, that suspension of disbelief — has long been Hollywood's goal.

Akumu no Elevator Rating: (3 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
MOVIES
Puppets on a string: Takumi Saito, Masaaki Uchino, Fuyuki Moto and Aimi Satsukawa in "Akumu no Elevator" © 2009: "AKUMU NO ELEVATOR" SEISAKU IINKAI

Director: Keisuke Horibe
Running time: 105 minutes
Language: Japanese
Opens Oct. 10, 2009
[See Japan Times movie listing]

But there are also filmmakers — Lars von Trier ("Dogville") being one, Peter Greenaway ("The Pillow Book") being another — who make us aware that we are watching art by stripping away the illusion of realism.

Keisuke Horibe, a veteran TV director making his feature debut with the suspense-comedy "Akumu no Elevator" ("Nightmare Elevator"), wants to entertain, not make a statement about film aesthetics. But halfway through the film, he gleefully overturns all our assumptions about what we've been seeing. We've been played, in other words, and rather skillfully too.

The danger with this sort of trick plotting is that, having been once bitten, the audience will be twice shy. Or, to put it Hollywood's way, they'll be taken out of the movie.

I certainly was. After I realized that my early investments in the characters had paid exactly zero, my attention drifted. Then, as an incredibly elaborate scheme started to unfold, I was drawn fitfully back in. For one thing, the four leads, playing strangers trapped in an apartment house elevator, make the big second-act transition with little visible strain.

Second, the various puzzle pieces of the plot snap into place smartly enough — one reason, perhaps, that Hanta Kinoshita's novel, on which Kenichi Suzuki's script was based, has sold 260,000 copies to date. Third and finally, Horibe keeps the story moving briskly and ingeniously between the elevator, where the four principals are trapped, and the past events that led them, not quite by coincidence, into their tiny antechamber to hell.

One is Jun (Takumi Saito), who is hurrying from a birthday tryst with his lover to the hospital where his wife is giving birth to their first child. We first see him lying in an elevator and coming to after a hard blow to his head, as three strangers look on: A loud, gangsterish-looking man (Masaaki Uchino), a mild-mannered middle-aged fellow in a green tracksuit (Fuyuki Moto) and a deathly quiet Goth girl (Aimi Satsukawa) crouched in a corner.

Jun is desperate to escape, since he doesn't want his wife to know his whereabouts while she went into labor. But no one outside answers his frantic cries and, amazingly, no one inside has a working cell phone. They will just have to wait until help arrives — or the elevator finishes the plunge that knocked Jun cold.

As in any other film about strangers thrown together in a bad situation, the individual stories start coming out. One catalyst to these confessions is the tracksuit guy, a reluctant psychic who can "read" people's darkest secrets. The loudmouth, we learn, is a house thief who was on his way to his next job when the elevator went on the blink. The Goth girl was bound for the rooftop, where she intended to say sayonara (goodbye) to the world. Mr. Tracksuit was headed, innocently enough, for his evening jog.

But when this trio leans forward to hear Jun's story, he hesitates, knowing that he'll sound like a total heel. Spill, though, he will, and here is where I'll stop, though the movie still has more than a hour to go. Once again a distributor, this time Nikkatsu, has given me a list of "forbidden" topics, including nearly everything that happens after this point. Soon, I suppose, they'll be handing out sample reviews.

As is often the case with TV-trained directors, Horibe cranks up the acting and action for comic effect. But unlike many Japanese comedies by such directors, "Akumu no Elevator" is more than the sum of its mugging. More precisely, there is a hidden reason for the overacting. I didn't quite buy it, though, just as I didn't quite buy the old Nikkatsu action pics about a handsome, quick-fisted stranger who assumes a fake identity to get information.

But as formulaic as those films could be, the best of them had energy and charm. So does "Akumu no Elevator," despite the tiresome narrative flimflam. It's also a natural for a remake. What could be more universal than an elevator, just about the safest form of transportation ever invented — until that 10-second ride turns into the longest nightmare of your life.


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