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Pub date March 11, 2009
WriterCheryl Eddy
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review

› cheryl@sfbg.com

How’s this for lowest common denominator? The first sentence of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Wikipedia entry explains that he is a "Japanese filmmaker best known for his many contributions to the J-horror genre." With his latest film, family drama Tokyo Sonata, particularly fresh in my mind, I’d nearly forgotten he was even part of that late-1990s trend. It’s inarguable that he made one of the best of the genre — 2001’s cult nugget Pulse, a meditation on the cold, paralyzingly lonely soul of the Internet masquerading as a sublimely creepy ghost story. Pulse is the only one of Kurosawa’s films made widely available to American popcorn-munchers, albeit in the dumbed-down form of a bastardized PG-13 remake starring Kristen Bell (tagline: "You are now infected.")

Fortunately, as the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival program notes point out, you’ll soon be getting a chance to see the original Pulse on the big screen, where its sinister sparseness should freak out even those who’ve already watched it on DVD. SFIAAFF’s spotlight on Kurosawa, encompassing seven films (including the local premiere of Tokyo Sonata) and an in-person visit from the man himself, couldn’t have been easy to curate. His filmography stretches back to the 1970s, with pink films and yakuza films and pre-J-horror horror films. His breakthrough, at least to stateside art house patrons and festival attendees, was 1997’s Cure, a serial-killa-thrilla lacking anything resembling Hollywood-style story beats. As the New York Times marveled, "Kurosawa constructs an elaborate psychological maze and then strands us in the middle of it" — a favorite technique that echoes throughout his work.

Though the SFIAAFF program spotlights Kurosawa, in many ways it’s also the Sho Aikawa show, with the actor appearing in paired films The Revenge: A Visit from Fate and The Revenge: The Scar that Never Fades (both 1997), and Eyes of the Spider and Serpent’s Path (both 1998). The stone-faced Aikawa — also a Takashi Miike regular, having triggered the total destruction of Planet Earth at the end of 1999’s Dead or Alive, among other triumphs — is particularly moving in the later films, wherein he plays a same-named character caught up in mirror-image circumstances who is, nonetheless, decidedly not the same dude. A child is snatched and murdered, and vengeance is sought, but Kurosawa focuses on the mundane aspects of gangsterhood, with the crew in Eyes of the Spider, for example, discussing polar bears and fishing strategies during stretches of downtime.

But this ain’t no Tarantino-style crimes-‘n’-chuckles set of films. With Tokyo Sonata, Kurosawa does away with the yakuza element, along with the overtly scary stuff, though the film is so timely it’s near-eerily prophetic. The economy is the boogeyman here, as an average Japanese family fractures when Dad is laid off (and doesn’t tell Mom) and the older son decides that joining the U.S. military seems like a pretty good career option. Dinner-table calm is soon replaced by ever-bizarre and sometimes tragic events, but the hidden talents of the younger son suggest all may not be dark in the world. The end result is Kurosawa’s most fulfilling work to date, in a career that’s already delivered quite a few winners. To borrow the title of one of those films, a bright future awaits.

THE SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL ASIAN AMERICAN FILM FESTIVAL March 12–22. Main venues are the Castro, 429 Castro, SF; Sundance Kabuki, 1881 Post, SF; Pacific Film Archive, 2575 Bancroft, Berk; and Camera 12 Cinemas, 201 S. Second St., San Jose. Tickets (most shows $11) are available at www.asianamericanmedia.org. For this week’s schedule, see film listings.