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Three hours of beautiful life.


Three hours and twenty-eight minutes is a bit long for a movie. Still, if you're going to go to a three hour and twenty-eight-minute film this week, I'd recommend you go see Eureka, because it's just so darn pretty.

Eureka begins with a bus hijacking. The hijacker is a crazed gunman (it's odd how gunmen tend to be crazed, rather than just "itchy" or "dehydrated") who kills everyone on board, except for the driver and two children.

Eureka is not an American action film, it's a Japanese art film. So after the bus hijacking there are no explosions. No one seeks vengeance. No one's partner is killed. Rather, Eureka is more concerned with the emotional impact that this violent event has on the lives of the three survivors.

The two children return to their home, but the publicity of the event drives their mother away. Shortly thereafter, their father is killed in a car accident, and they are left alone in their large country house.

Meanwhile, the bus driver quits his job, leaves his wife and goes wandering for three years. When he returns he's a bit of an emotional cripple whose most frequent utterance is "sorry." This attitude doesn't help him when a serial killer starts preying on young women in the small town where he lives--he immediately becomes the prime suspect due to his odd behavior.

With even his family suspicious of him he moves in with the parentless children who, he believes, he failed to protect in the past. Together, the three of them form some sort of emotional bond and watch a lot of television.

The story and characters have a Bergman feel, but the sound and visuals, which are really what sustains Eureka, are more Antonioni. Which is to say: lots of ambient noise over long, slow shots that are very carefully framed, with little clutter. The images more than just work with the story, they present its mood as much as the dialogue does. In fact, the children become mute and lethargic after the death of their father, so their characters are presented more in the sepia-toned views of their house and village than in their words or actions.

The monochromatic cinematography (punctuated by a short color sequence) by Masaki Tamura has such a precise air that it could easily have been ruined by any less care in any other part of the film. It works, though, because director Shinji Aoyama has produced one of the most exquisite film sound designs ever.

There's very little music, as such, but each scene is scored with intoxicating background noises. Crickets, birds, wind and even coughing form a soundtrack which emphasizes the emptiness of the story and characters. The effect is enhanced by the long stretches of film that are nearly devoid of dialogue and action, simply showing the texture of mundane existence.

Such entertainment with a lot of space for thought and reflection is rare in the West, but it is not in Japan. Even Japanese comic books have a tendency to pace out their stories with sustained series of images of minor events. This creates a very different viewing experience than the rapidly cut, noisy and action-filled standard we find in American cinema.

It's also why lots of Americans dread Japanese cinema. And, frankly, it's a conceit that works best in a shorter film. But I really can't knock Eureka, because it's so good in every other way. On top of the fabulous sound and cinematography, the acting is very good and the sparse script is mostly excellent.

I would think cinema fans would want to see Eureka because it so successfully presents an alternative mode of filmmaking, one that is more interested in surface details than in the satisfaction of narrative elements. The Western films it's closest to would be Antonioni's L'Eclisse or Red Desert, but those films are more than ninety minutes shorter than this one.

Of course, if three and a half-hours is more time than you can commit to a film, the fact that this movie is not so much about plot could be an incentive to see it. You can pretty much drop in and out at any moment and still enjoy the general mood of the film. So what the hell: go, buy your ticket, sit for a while, and when your butt gets tired you can always head out and get back to whatever it is that we in the West are so busy with these days.

Eureka is playing at Catalina (881-0616).

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Director: Shinji Aoyama

Cast: Koji Yakusho, Aoi Miyazaki, Masaru Miyazaki and Yoichiro Saito

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