Asian movies are having a banner year with American audiences. Two pictures by the late Japanese master Akira Kurosawa are now in theaters - "Madadayo" and "Ran" - and the current New York Film Festival (through Oct. 9) is presenting the US premires of several other movies from the region.
The first of these to reach commercial screens are markedly different in everything except the excellence of their quality: the Japanese adventure "Gohatto," which means "Taboo," and the Taiwanese drama "Yi Yi," also known as "A One and a Two...."
Of the two, Yi Yi should have the most appeal if its three-hour running time doesn't scare audiences away. Directed by Edward Yang, it tells the insightful story of a Taiwanese family facing challenges: a grandmother is seriously ill, a granddaughter fears she contributed to this crisis, her father's computer company is considering a risky venture, and touches of jealousy add extra tension to the household's moods.
These ingredients could have added up to a heated domestic melodrama, but Yang favors a gentle and introspective style. It serves him beautifully. Yang is a veteran filmmaker whose recent works ("Mahjong," "A Confucian Confusion") have not measured up to his full talent. "Yi Yi" is a triumphant return to form.
Gohatto comes from Nagisa Oshima, a Japanese maverick known for razor-sharp fables like "The Man Who Left His Will on Film" and "In the Realm of the Senses," which combine modernist filmmaking with aggressive critiques of social power structures. His new picture does the same via the irony-tinged tale of a 19th-century warrior whose entrance into a samurai legion sparks rivalries among colleagues who court his affections.
The movie's most striking asset is its lyrical visual style, which forms a silky counterpoint to the plot's turbulent emotions. Also impressive is Takeshi "Beat" Kitano's performance as a senior warrior, as smooth and expressive as any of the acting he's done in his own popular films. What dominates the picture, though, is its surprising and revealing look at gay impulses in the ferocious samurai world. "Taboo" is a suitable title, but the story could well have been called "Do Ask, Do Tell."
Neither film is rated. 'Yi Yi' contains tasteful treatment of adult material. 'Gohatto' contains stylized violence and sex.
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