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Friday, November 07, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

'Japón' a remarkable first effort that is disturbing, bold, mysterious, primal

By Jeff Shannon
Special to The Seattle Times

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The ghost of Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky looms appreciatively over the sun-baked Mexican terrain of "Japón," and you get the distinct impression that first-time director Carlos Reygadas wouldn't have it any other way.

Reygadas openly acknowledges the influence of Tarkovsky on his feature debut, and his glacially paced camera moves invite charges of stylistic mimickry, but there's something more to the cryptically titled "Japón" than the sincerest form of flattery. Unlike the flood of Tarantino imitators who polluted the American indie scene in the wake of "Pulp Fiction," Reygadas is no mere copycat; it appears that Tarkovsky — most directly by way of "The Sacrifice" — has provided genuine inspiration for Reygadas, who dropped a career in international law to follow his muse. André Bazin's essential book "What is Cinema?" sparked additional motivation, and Reygadas was on his way to international art-house acclaim.

For the most part, the praise for "Japón" is justified, including the Golden Camera award (for best first film) at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival. Like Tarkovsky's most noteworthy films, "Japón" is a languorous experience, hypnotically appealing to some and a guaranteed soporific for others. If you're in synch with its heartbeat, and with Reygadas' tendency to pursue visual detours that intensify the film's sensual impact, this is a remarkable first effort that is equal parts disturbing, bold, mysterious and primal.
Movie review


***
"Japón," with Alejandro Ferretis, Magdalena Flores. Directed and written by Carlos Reygadas. 122 minutes. Not rated; suitable for mature audiences (contains nudity, profanity, graphic imagery). In Spanish with English subtitles. Grand Illusion, through Thursday (no shows Monday).

The minimal plot begins when an unnamed, partially lame artist (Alejandro Ferretis) leaves Mexico City, intending to commit suicide by leaping into a canyon in the remote Hidalgo countryside. In preparing for death, he lodges with an elderly woman named Ascen (short for Ascension, with a hint of saintliness, and played with quiet grace by Magdalena Flores). Her influence — after their initial awkwardness is dispelled — qualifies as a kind of spiritual healing, up to and including the man's desire for physical intimacy despite their disparate ages.

That development alone is fair indication of Reygadas' boldness, in addition to guiding nonprofessional actors through enigmatic territory that places humanity squarely within nature but never above it.

"Japón" (some have compared the absurdist title to "Brazil") is a philosophical inquiry expressed in 16-millimeter Cinemascope, inviting viewers to contemplate their own response to the sights and sounds that Reygadas so confidently orchestrates. If that sounds like an invitation to head-scratching tedium, you'd be better off with the flimsy cosmology of the "Matrix" trilogy.

If, on the other hand, you welcome a cinematic challenge that's likely to resonate in your thoughts for days, you could do far worse than visit "Japón." With graphic imagery including a severed bird's head, a gutted horse and a pig noisily slaughtered (thankfully off-screen), "Japón" presents a universe where life and death are constantly intermingled, and there's power in its mystery.

Now that he's off to a promising start, it will be interesting to see how Reygadas shapes his vision in subsequent films.

Jeff Shannon: j.sh@verizon.net


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