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Chilly Scenes

Baby, It's Cold Outside: Masatoshi Nagase on the road to nowhere

'Cold Fever' is full of Iceland's eccentrics

By Richard von Busack

HARD ON Dead Man, with a lost Easterner wandering the West, here's Cold Fever, with lost foreigners trudging across the tundra. A deft, cool ending actually helps, as does extensive footage of the rugged countryside. But is this a postmodern travelogue or a 90-minute ethnic joke? The weirdness of Iceland substitutes for a plot. According to director Fridrik Fridriksson, the country is full of people who sing for no reason, endure hellish winters and eat gross food: the sheep's head, the sheep's eyes, the sheep, ground and served in buns (what one character calls "sheepdogs").

Our fish out of water is in the fish business. Atsushi Hirata (Masatoshi Nagase) is an oppressed Tokyo salaryman. These early scenes are among the best; Fridriksson has a good eye for locations and makes the urban landscapes of Tokyo a match for the ice fortresses to come. Hirata is about to leave for a vacation in Hawaii, but his grandfather, a Shinto priest (Seijun Suzuki), urges him to go to Iceland instead; Hirata's parents were killed there, and it's time for their spirits to be propitiated with the correct rituals. Soon, Hirata's in Iceland, traveling across ice and snow and menaced by quirky people.

It's an offbeat place, God knows, and the film gives you a few samples: there's more Nobel Prize winners per capita than any other nation, and everything runs on geothermal energy (now that you know this trivia, you can share it with those you love). Icelanders sound like a reasonable bunch, but in Fridriksson's view, the whole country is as crazy as Björk herself. Hirata for instance gives a ride to a self-described "funeral collector" who takes photos of burials. Laura Hughes is properly spooky in the part; she recalls one of the most spine-chilling of all televangelists, Katherine Kuhlman.

Finally, an old man at what is probably the world's northernmost cowboy bar decides to help Hirata complete his quest. Gisli Halldorsson's grave performance as the aged Siggi is a relief, since it comes after an onslaught by the marquee names: Lili Taylor and Fisher Stevens. As the American psycho hitchhikers who pester the forlorn Hirata, they are the ethnic joke within the ethnic joke. Stevens himself wears a San Jose Sharks parka, possibly in homage to co-producer and San Jose Sharks owner George Gund--was Gund attracted to this frozen movie in tribute to all the money he's made from ice?

The studied eccentricity is tiresome, and the hero vacillates between stubbornness and sulkiness. Still, the black-sand beaches, waterfalls, geysers and mountains of Iceland are something to see. The story, however, is one joke played and played again--how ironic to be lost in Iceland during the dead of winter! When you comment frequently on your own irony, the savor of irony is lost.

Cold Fever (Unrated; 85 min.), directed and photographed by Fridrik Fridriksson, written by Fridriksson and Jim Stark, and starring Masatoshi Nagase.

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From the May 23-29, 1996 issue of Metro

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