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On a Rocky Road: Alejandro Ferretis plays a man driven to the mountains by scenes of casual cruelty in 'Japón.'

Hard Times

A stranger seeks respite in a harsh land in 'Japón'

By Richard von Busack

IT HAPPENS that you'll see an animal mistreated in a film, and you'll hate it so much that you're often thrown off the course the film wants to take you on. Someone says, "Animals die every day," and that it's only the pampered North American who cares about it. The purity of a film's mood tests whether it's worth the indecency of watching a creature die. In Gummo, when Harmony Korine had his characters beat an already dead or prosthetic cat to show the coarseness of low-rent life, the film's manipulative phoniness was brought to a new low level. In Carlos Reygadas' Japón, a dove is killed on-camera, shot by a party of hunters and then put out of its misery by a passing traveler. No movie is worth killing a bird over, though probably the dove was eaten. (Japón was filmed in a hungry country.) The image of the severed head gasping on the ground befits the film's mood of fatalism and misanthropy.

The death of the dove is one more encouragement for the unnamed protagonist (Alejandro Ferretis) to kill himself. He looks at the coarseness of the hunters, city drunks who have come to this desert in the state of Hildago, Mexico, to shoot birds, and he continues on his way to find a place remote enough to commit suicide in. After journeying through a despondent town--the best place to stay is a shack next to a slaughterhouse--the man makes his way to a remote valley. In the dry rocks above a village, he finds a place to stay with an aged widow named Ascension, or Ascen for short. She rents out her barn to the stranger for a few days, and the man stays, relaxing, bringing out his brushes to paint the villagers who farm the lowlands by the river. The nephew of the old crone, just out of jail, turns up, intending to demolish her barn for the building stones that hold it up. Since the barn is a windbreak against the spring storms, the greedy nephew's actions will likely wipe out his aunt's house.

The title is Japón, and the story seems North African, like something out of Bowles or Camus, but actually it is a film about Mexico, as symbolized by a most remote village. Here we see simplicity, generosity and unfailing courteousness matched with meanness, poorness and the suffering of animals. This widescreen film uses such a limited color scale that L.A. Times critic Manohla Dargis misremembered it as being in black-and-white. Japón's spareness and seriousness make Reygadas' debut an impressive one, despite a few wrong turns, such as a too-revealing dream sequence and a badly staged finale. Magdalena Flores, as Ascen, is terrific in the part of the landlady. People who were shocked by Kathy Bates' nude scene in About Schmidt will find it eclipsed by the risk this nonprofessional actress took. Japón reflects Flores' own lack of pretense, her own honesty, and honors it, just as it honors the death of a dove.


Japón (Unrated; 122 min.), directed and written by Carlos Reygadas, photographed by Diego Martinez Vignatti and starring Alejandro Ferretis and Magdalena Flores, opens Friday at Camera 3 in San Jose.


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From the June 12-18, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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