Saturday, October 16, 2004


* * (out of four)
Seen 15 October 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Boston Fantastic Film Festival; projected video)

I want to love Ryuhei Kitamura. The guy makes movies with great enthusiasm, and when it comes time to bring the violence, he seldom disappoints, delivering fast-paced, energetic action scenes. It's worth remembering, though, that he's only been doing features for about five years, and he's still learning his craft. Alive is his second feature after Versus, and doesn't yet show the skill of Azumi.

Specifically, he hasn't yet mastered pacing. The action in this movie is heavily back-loaded, with the first forty-five minutes or so of this 120-minute movie given over to establishing the setting and situation. We've got two strong-willed death row types locked in a room for some sort of experiment. One (Tak Sakaguchi) is a career criminal who murdered then raped at least nine women, while the other (Hideo Sakai) had hunted down the six men who assaulted his girlfriend and brutally murdered them - and apparently killed her, too. When they aren't at each other's throats quite fast enough for the people running the experiment (or the audience), a new element is introduced - Yurika Saegusa, a beautiful woman behind glass (Ryo). But she's got a secret, one which could prove even more explosive and deadly than anything the killers expect.

But it all takes so darn long. Sure, the action scenes are exciting and kinetic, but between them, there's a lot of exposition, which uses a lot of words to explain some fairly simple backstory but is also structured with a lot of "aha! but you guys didn't know this when you were making your plans..." The movie also retains a lot of structure from its manga roots: Though in the US, Japanese comics are generally published in 200-page digests (and American comics are 22-pagers that the audience collects), in Japan they are generally 16-page segments in big weekly anthologies that are discarded within a week or two, so events in one chapter often don't refer back much further than the previous chapter. When adapted to a movie, the result is a story that can turn on a dime but is also very linear. Nothing in this movie really felt cumulative, like it was building up from the very first frame.

Visually, Alive has issues, too, but I'm not sure how much is presentation. When screened at the BFFF, the source was very clearly a DVD, and projected video just looks different from film. It didn't help that the room where most of the action takes place is all the same shade of gray, so that even though there seems to be some elaborate production design going on, it's tough to make out. The whole thing seems vaguely under-lit, as well.

But, dang, there's some good action. When a whole bunch of guards come in to take down a now-superpowered character, it's a site to behold. And Kitamura does some neat things with composition, drawing attention to foreground objects in a way that is sort of unnerving. His eye would serve him well in later films, and I see from the IMDB that he's working more from others' screenplays now.

Maybe that's just what he needs; some writer/directors just have trouble cutting anything they wrote or just aren't as strong in the scripting area. Most of Alive's problems are story-related, as opposed to visual.

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