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Shaking up our expectations

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Shohei Imamura's Warm Water Under a Red Bridge, which screens this Friday at the Dryden Theatre, is, at least at its foundation, remarkably similar to his critically acclaimed film The Eel. Both movies deal with a middle-aged, white-collar office drone who leaves a big city life to take up with a bunch of rural kooks (and both characters are played by the great Koji Yakusho, who is probably best known in this country as the star of Shall We Dance?). But where The Eel was shockingly violent (at least at the beginning), Bridge shakes us up with several surprising sex scenes.

            The whole city-to-country thing is probably meant to be a commentary on the conflict between modern Japan and that country's traditional beliefs, but since my knowledge of Japanese history is limited to the three minutes we devoted to the island nation in high school, most of it was probably lost on me.

            In Bridge, the main character is Yosuke Sasano, a recently laid-off businessman who wanders the streets looking for work while his nagging wife interrupts his job hunt by ringing his cell phone and squawking about the mounting bills back home.

            During his journey, Yosuke befriends a dying homeless man (Kazuo Kitamura) who tells him a story about a valuable golden Buddha statue he stole decades ago, stashing it in the home of a former girlfriend out in the sticks. With the prospect of finding work growing dimmer and dimmer, Yosuke heads out to said sticks in hopes of finding both the house (he was told it was near a red bridge) and its hidden treasure. But, in true cinematic fashion, he finds so much more.

            I've witnessed many odd things happen in a small-town setting (thank you, David Lynch), but what Yosuke sees really takes the cake. He stops at a supermarket, notices a cute girl shoplifting and is surprised to see her leave behind both a puddle of water and a fish-shaped earring. Curious, Yosuke grabs the earring and carefully follows the girl home, only to find out she lives in the house by the red bridge. After meeting Saeko (Misa Shimizu), the two characters engage in an impromptu round of sex, during which we learn the origin of the "warm water" (and we're just as surprised as Yosuke, too).

            But there's more than just the "venting" sex --- most notably the colorful locals who somehow manage never to be clichéd (including an African marathoner-in-training, who is often chased by dogs, the angry words of the locals, and, sometimes, a bicycle-riding, bat-wielding coach --- he can't speak English, either, which is mighty Jarmuschian).

            The locals warn Yosuke that his virility is being sapped by his new squeeze. Like fellow Asian import Suzhou River, the water here is just as important as any character, and there's even the very Vertigoish double-identity thing, since Yosuke looks just like Saeko's old boyfriend who drowned while he was fishing. Meanwhile, Yosuke takes a job as a fisherman (a la Yakusho's character's return to his blue-collar roots in The Eel --- he became a barber).

            Some folks might think Bridge is an extremely sexist film, especially when Yosuke graciously offers to have lots and lots of sex with Saeko if it will help to cure her shoplifting. It's actually very pro-feminism, but I can't explain how without going into parts of the plot that I think should probably not be revealed in too much detail. Yakusho, as always, is wonderful as the long-faced sad sack (he's Kiyoshi Kurosawa's star of choice, as well) and his chemistry with Shimizu is very believable --- they've appeared opposite each other in The Eel, Dance? and Imamura's previous American release, Dr. Akagi.

            The 76-year-old director, who has won three awards at Cannes, adds plenty of his lingering static shots, while demonstrating his uncanny ability to change the mood from extreme drama to slapsticky comedy at the drop of a hat.

Read My Lips starts out like a French version of Neil LaBute's In the Company of Men. Its main character is Carla (Emmanuelle Devos), a partially deaf secretary for a property development company who is both mocked and exploited by her co-workers. Carla has trained many of her current bosses and continually finds herself working her tail off on various projects, only to be removed just before they're completed.

            Her personal life isn't much better, as her friends don't think twice about dropping their kids off at Carla's apartment so they can party it up. Basically, she's a 35-year-old doormat, and everyone is wearing big muddy boots.

            The mousy Carla, whose life seems to be firmly rooted in daily routine, finds things at work turned a bit upside-down when she is told she can hire an assistant for herself. She asks the employment agency for a "well-groomed man" with nice hands, and gets someone with bad prison tattoos who looks like Lemmy from Motorhead. His name is Paul (Vincent Cassel) and he's just done a stretch for aggravated robbery, but after an awkward interview, Carla hires him anyway (She: "Have you worked with spreadsheets?" He: "Spreadsheets? Oh, yeah. Mostly German ones.")

            Sparks don't exactly fly between the two officemates, which makes us even more suspicious when Carla bends over backwards to make Paul's life a whole lot better. When she discovers the office has been doubling as his living space, Carla hooks Paul up with a spacious apartment owned by the company, and even gives him an advance on his salary. Is he taking advantage of her lack of personal contact with other humans, or is she just eager to keep him employed so she can have someone to boss around?

            The answer is neither, as it turns out. Lips shifts from a gawky office romance into a pot-boiling thriller in its second half. After he is badly beaten by a mobster (to whom he owes 70,000 francs) and forced to tend bar at his popular nightclub, Paul cooks up an idea to abscond with a large sum of the man's money. His plan involves having Carla perch on a roof with a pair of binoculars and read the lips of the people in the mobster's apartment. Meanwhile, Carla takes advantage of Paul's street smarts in ways that positively affect her career. It's reciprocal exploitation by a pair of society's rejects.

            Logistically, Lips is a nightmare, beginning with the whole lip-reading thing (why does everyone in that apartment stand by the window when they talk?). The lack of chemistry between the two leads undermines the film's few romantic moments, and a subplot involving Paul's parole officer is less than half-cooked. But most glaring of all is the transition between Lips' two very different halves. It almost seems like writer-director Jacques Audiard (he wrote Venus Beauty Institute) simply threw a switch and hoped for the best.

            Luckily, Devos's performance is strong enough to make the aforementioned criticisms seem far less important. She won the César, France's version of the Oscars (beating Under the Sand's Charlotte Rampling, The Piano Teacher's Isabelle Huppert, and the heavily favored Audrey Tautou from Amèlie), and rightfully so, as Devos wears Carla like a second skin. Lips also deservingly won a César for its sound, which is presented from Carla's perspective. We experience sound the way she does, so when her hearing aid is removed, we hear fumbling before everything becomes muted and muffled.

            Never once predictable, Lips seems like the kind of project some Hollywood star will remake in the near future, though it's unlikely they would allow themselves to appear as damaged as either of these two characters (a la Tom Cruise and Vanilla Sky, right down to the big rooftop ending).

Interested in raw, unedited movie ramblings from Jon? Visit his site, Planet Sick-Boy www.sick-boy.com, or listen to him on WBER's Friday Morning Show.

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