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Thursday, May 5, 2005 01:06 am

flicks 5-5-05

The outlandish action of Kung Fu Hustle recalls a classic ’70s hit, because everyone is kung fu fighting. No film that features a middle-aged woman in curlers as a kung fu master can be taken seriously, but the goofiness of Kung Fu Hustle is never less than entertaining. American audiences have become far more receptive to Asian films, and that continent has replaced Europe as the major foreign influence on the American cinema. This influence is obvious in The Matrix and Kill Bill. Decades ago, the names to watch were Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman, and François Truffaut, but Europe has failed to replace these giants. Now we search out the works of John Woo, Hideo Nakata, and Takashi Mîke. Further investigation shows that not everyone really is kung fu fighting, and there is much greater diversity in Asian cinema.

John Woo has already established himself as a major Hollywood director with a series of flashy action thrillers, but before leaving Hong Kong he had developed a major cult following with The Killer (1989) and Hard Boiled (1992), both starring Chow Yun-Fat. The latter is far superior, and no film better demonstrates Woo’s wizardry at coordinating large-scale action sequences. His Hollywood output has been a bit disappointing with the exception of the mesmerizing Face/Off (1997).

Hideo Nakata, from Japan, is not as well known to Americans, but many are peripherally familiar with his work. Nakata is best known for Ringu (1998), which was Americanized as The Ring (2002). Another of Nakata’s films, Chaos (1999), is about to undergo the remake treatment, but this gem doesn’t need fixing. Chaos is a breathtaking kidnap thriller that evokes the work of Alfred Hitchcock, but with the backward structure of Memento. The reverse narrative is hardly a gimmick; each subsequent segment reveals essential details that will eventually relieve the growing confusion.

Japan’s Takashi Mîke has become one of the most notorious figures in modern cinema with his chaotic, violent, boundary-stretching thrillers. Dead or Alive (1999) and The City of Lost Souls (2000) are good for starters, but they aren’t among his best work. I recommend that more adventurous viewers look for Audition (1999), which is available through mail-order rental services. Audition is an atypically controlled film from the master of mayhem. Love turns to horror for a widower looking for a new wife, and Mîke raises the level of the battle of the sexes to unparalleled sadism. This one isn’t for the faint of heart.

This is just the tip of the iceberg, and there are Asian countries other than Hong Kong and Japan to explore. China, Thailand, Korea, and Indonesia are also part of this Asian wave of cinema.

DVDs scheduled for release Tuesday (May 10):In Good Company, Assault on Precinct 13, The Merchant of Venice, and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.

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