Hollywood doesn't often take probing looks at family relationships, but movies from independent and international producers have a way of filling the gap. Two of this week's openings, the Japanese drama "Eureka" and an American comedy-drama called "The Young Girl and the Monsoon," do exactly that. In other respects, though, it's hard to think of two family-related pictures that are more dissimilar.
Eureka was one of the most talked-about movies at last year's major film festivals, from Cannes to Toronto to New York, but it's taken many months to make its way onto American theater screens. One reason for the delay is its "Titanic"-size length, clocking in at more than 3-1/2 hours. Another is its drastic departure from standard formulas.
The film begins with a horribly violent act: the hijacking of a city bus by a deranged killer who cares nothing about human life. Yet this incident is conveyed through images so carefully composed and emotionally distanced that it's clear the movie's director, Shinji Aoyama, has no desire to shock or scandalize us.
Quite the opposite, he wants us to think about what lessons we might learn from society's penchant for eruptions of random chaos. This explains the contemplative pace and meditative black-and-white photography he uses to present his story.
The movie's family interests start to surface in its next portion. The only survivors of the hijacking are a schoolgirl and her older brother, along with the eccentric worker who was driving the bus on the fatal day. Left to drift by their parents, the youngsters befriend the driver, joining him and their college-student cousin for a bus journey across the Japanese countryside.
Coalescing into a sort of household-on-the-move, this unconventional group develops an intricate set of family-type relationships, complicated by an additional tragic circumstance: Wherever they go, enigmatic killings seem to happen in their vicinity. Is one of them a secret murderer? Or is some inescapable destiny at work in their troubled lives?
"Eureka" is a mysterious and sometimes maddening movie. Some spectators may find it too slow and ambiguous. But others will hail Aoyama's intelligent examination of the interplay between kinship and friendship. While this isn't a movie for everyone, patient viewers will find ample rewards in its 217 minutes of eloquently filmed cinema.
The Young Girl and the Monsoon sounds like equally exotic fare. But it's as American as its main characters, a well-meaning photojournalist and his 13-year-old daughter, who are doing their up-and-down best to navigate the challenges of single fatherhood and adolescent insecurity.
Hank is the dad, trying to be a sophisticated New Yorker while hiding his mercurial love life from his impressionable child. Constance is the daughter, wondering how she's supposed to learn about life when her well-meaning father would rather evade her questions than sooth her uncertainties. Their predicaments intensify when she moves into his apartment just as he's facing big romantic and professional problems. An inescapable question arises: Who's really the mature one around here?
"The Young Girl and the Monsoon" gains most of its oomph from all-stops-out acting by Terry Kinney and Ellen Muth as the main characters. They reveal the psychological shortcomings of Hank and Constance with wit and insight, avoiding temptations to fall back on comic caricature or melodramatic exaggeration.
The picture was written, directed, and produced by playwright James Ryan, who may become a filmmaker to reckon with if he can devise a cinematic style that matches his skill at writing dialogue and eliciting strong performances. Accurately billed as a coming-of-middle-age comedy, "The Young Girl and the Monsoon" is one of the most engaging American indies so far this year.
These movies are not rated. 'Eureka' contains violence. 'The Young Girl and the Monsoon' contains sex-related dialogue and adult situations.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor