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Black Kiss
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by Jay Seaver

"Has that just-rained feeling."
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2006 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: It's almost assuring to see that other film industries can occasionally do the things that drive us crazy in America. Consider the case of this pitch-black serial killer movie from Japan that played film festivals under the name of "Synchronicity" back in late 2004 (and that name still figures prominently into the design of the opening credits), but didn't get a theatrical release until 2006, when its name had become "Black Kiss". It's a great, grimy movie, but it must drive a filmmaker crazy to have his work just sit unseen for over a year.

The film opens with a man and a beautiful young woman on a date, and to every outward appearance, it's a "getting ahead in business" date; she's a model trying to upgrade her status to "actress". They flirt, they drink, they check into the "Hotel Bat's". He runs out to get a drink, and when he comes back, he's knocked out, tied up, and... Well, it's gross.

Flash back a week and meet Asuka Hoshino (Reika Hashimoto), a young model who just moved to Tokyo and is living out of her duffel bag. A fellow model introduces her to Kasumi (Kaori Kawamura), who used to be in that business but is now working retail, and whose roommate just moved out. Kasumi is initially hostile, but lets the sugary-sweet younger girl move in. Kasumi is mysterious and unstable; she'll be friendly one minute and then get a phone call that has her screaming, followed abruptly by "I'm going out". It's after one of those calls that Asuka looks out the window and sees the grisly murder from the opener. The police are called, including one (Shunsuke Matsuoka) who has a history with Kasumi; he's told to consult with a retired detective (Masao Takayama) who worked on bizarre cases with the FBI in America, who is a little odd himself.

Much of the film takes place after dark in Tokyo, though not the neon-drenched city we might recognize from pictures; Kasumi lives in a grimy area that constantly seems to be crowding too many people into too little space. Sharp-eyed viewers will spot a poster for Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho amid the clutter of the street, and filmmaker Makoto Tezuka makes numerous nods to that film - it's a short jump from the Bates Motel to Hotel Bat's, obviously, and the reason a prime suspect is eliminated is likely another nod. Tezuka seems to draw a great deal of influence from western filmmakers, from Hitchcock to Bava and back to de Palma. Everything seems to have recently been covered with a coat of toxic rain, slick and dirty at the same time. An influence that doesn't seem to appear very much is the director's father, manga and anime legend Osamu Tezuka. The look favored by Kasumi's former roommate, Ayabe Mali is reminiscent of the elder Tezuka's work but in an unnerving way; she's a too-perfect doll amid a busy, dangerous landscape.

That Tezuka draws so heavily from western sources compared to his own countrymen is interesting in part because of the pointed comments made about Asuka's and Kasumi's ethnicity. Early on, Kasumi is evaluating Asuka and comments that she'll be popular as a model, at least for a time, because she's half-Japanese, but doesn't like when her acquaintances call her "Lucy" rather than her Japanese name, in part because she has trouble with the American half of her own family - and when the detective refers to Kasumi as "half" later on in the movie, it sounds like and almost-slur. It's an interesting thing to figure into the characters' psychology, that they're valued for their difference but also pushed away for the same reason; it provides an unspoken common ground for the mismatched pair of roommates, and maybe part of why Kasumi is so standoffish or why Asuka embraces stardom so hungrily.

As mysteries go, this film has a few problems; red herrings abound and the final answer is in large part keyed to the motivations of a character who gets little if any face time on screen. It's out-there enough that I would have really liked to see a little more first-hand, even if it means Tezuka tips his hand a little or used some flashbacks outside of the main film's timeline. And even though this is a long-ish movie (about two hours and fifteen minutes), there's some parts that seem left out; consider how one character is surprised by some body parts but isn't actually seen again, even after the rest of that victim shows up. This would seem to merit some follow-up, but Tezuka couldn't seem to find time.

What he does give us is atmosphere, and plenty of it. Even if the story gets shuffled off to the background, every frame of this movie is dripping with feeling and detail. Consider Kasumi's apartment, crowded with tchotchkes, a turtle, and a phone that barks like a dog to keep her from feeling lonely. We get a sense of Asuka's and Kasumi's world, and how who Kasumi is and how she chooses to live creates a situation where a monster like this can enter her life. It's not so much the actual murder mystery that's important, but how we encounter it - peeling back layers of mystery with the much more innocent Asuka, who is terrified by some of what she sees but quickly becomes too close to simply abandon her friend. It's because of this that we buy the end and its high-wire action; these characters are willing to go through hell for each other.

We believe in the characters, too, not just the world. Kaori Kawamura creates a complicated character without giving the audience a lot of exposition; everything we learn about her fits what we see, but Ms. Kawamura never seems to be grabbing onto past incidents with clear-cut psychological effects to create her character. Reika Hashimoto is pretty good as her nave younger counterpart, unfamiliar with her new world but not stupidly optimistic; she's nervous, even if she has confidence in her own worth and skills. Matsuoka is convinces us that he's an able investigator while still being as creeped out by what he's finding as the audience is, while Takayama is good in the annoyingly mysterious mentor (who knows a little too much about the subject) role. Masanobu Ando is enjoyable to watch as the photographer that initially focuses on Asuka opportunistically but later seems to become genuinely fond of her (the actor is the most Eurasian-looking of the bunch, though it's not mentioned on-screen; perhaps that's a reason why the character gravitates toward Asuka and Kasumi).

I readily admit that the mystery's solution is a bit out of left field, which probably keeps "Black Kiss" a notch below the masterpiece level. It's still a tense, exciting film that sucks the audience into its world and keeps them on the edge of their seats.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=14753&reviewer=371
originally posted: 07/21/06 09:42:58
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Fantasia Film Festival For more in the 2006 Fantasia Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Makoto Tezuka

Written by
  Makoto Tezuka

Cast
  Masanobu Ando
  Angie
  Reika Hashimoto
  Seri Iwahori
  Kikuo Kaneuchi
  Kaori Kawamura



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