Uh-huh. That explanation might wash if Giles had stumbled into Last Year at Marienbad instead of Hotpants College II. Kwietniowski strives for poignance and snags mawkishness instead. The "power" of his particular piece of "cinema" lies in its ability to drive you out of a theater faster than anything since the word fire. (Friday, February 6, 7:00 p.m.)

-- Michael Yockel

For lack of an exact parallel, you could say that director, editor, TV actor, and frequent talk-show guest Takeshi Kitano is Japan's answer to Keenen Ivory Wayans. (A better comparison might be to playwright Samuel Beckett, if Beckett had ever written for prime-time TV.) Kitano's captivating 1993 black-comedy gangster film, Sonatine -- distributed in the United States by Quentin Tarantino's Rolling Thunder division of Miramax Films -- is one of two movies by this emerging international cult figure to screen at this year's festival. (His 1997 film Fireworks unspools on Sunday.) It's one of the fest's most compelling entries.

Kitano (who goes by "Beat" Takeshi) stars as Murakama, a burned-out, middle-aged mobster who wants to retire but, because he's a threat to his overboss, he gets saddled with an unenviable assignment: He's sent to Okinawa to settle a clan war. Before he leaves Tokyo we see him savagely beat another gangster, and we get our first clue that the movie isn't squeamish about spilling blood. That's what you'd expect from a story about Japan's notorious yakuza (mobsters). What's unusual, however, is that the story centers on the few weeks that Murakama and his underlings hole up on an Okinawa beach, waiting for an opportunity to act. It's a gangster film that's about the gangsters' downtime, but that's just the first element of Sonatine to fly in the face of our expectations.

Unlike the constant pyrotechnics of, say, a John Woo gangster film, Sonatine unfolds more like a Chekhov play -- a controlled drama in which suspense is built because nothing happens for long periods of time. It's about stakeouts as a way of life, and though Kitano plays this notion for comedy, the film's undercoat is actually very dark. Not that we aren't warned. Early on we witness Murakama's precise, businesslike brutality as he supervises the torture of a man lowered into the water by a crane. "It doesn't matter," he remarks when the man accidentally dies. But even that display of cold-bloodedness doesn't dissuade us from enjoying Murakama's lighter side.

He's bemused by the young thugs he's assembled: They can barely contain themselves, losing self-control and shooting at each other like irascible puppies moments after they've been hired. It's no wonder their world-weary boss plays jokes on them, egging them on till they fall into hidden traps he's set in the sand. And Murakama is particularly tickled when his men create a life-size reproduction of a kids' game in which paper dolls are made to "wrestle" each other. He even introduces a fatal twist into a seemingly innocent game of paper, scissors, rock.

Despite the film's gentle running jokes (about Hawaiian shirts and geisha theater), despite the gangsters' cavorting on the beach, despite all the playfulness, Murakama knows that life isn't a game. He has nightmares; he wonders if he could kill himself. He talks with his girlfriend about whether he has the courage to die. A contemplative gangster? Kitano has a precedent, of course, in director Akira Kurosawa's warrior-heroes who transcend the limits of their Sam Peckinpah-imitating gunplay.

Indeed, despite Hollywood's time-honored compulsion to tally up excessive body counts, violence isn't necessarily best depicted through action. Kitano is showing us something about the rewards of patience in watching a film. (And perhaps something about filmmaking itself, an endeavor comprising long stretches of time when little occurs, punctuated by occasional action and insight.) Juxtaposed with lengthy comic interludes, the violence in Sonatine is rendered all the more horrific. The film's jagged revelations are made exquisitely shocking by the wait. (Saturday, February 7, 2:00 p.m.)

-- Robin Dougherty

At the outset of Argentine director Eduardo Milewicz's likable if uneven La Vida Segun Muriel (Life According to Muriel), eight-year-old Muriel (Florencia Camiletti) and her brittle thirtysomething mother Laura (Soledad Villamil) hop into a car and speed away from Buenos Aires, lighting out for the mountainous countryside in the south where Laura grew up. In voice-over Muriel notes that a succession of her mom's boyfriends have described Laura as being "mentally unbalanced." She also points out that she has never met her father. End of back story.

A plot convenience quickly intervenes, setting up the rest of the film: Laura and Muriel stop and get out of the car to admire a remarkably beautiful lakeside vista, one with snow-capped mountains looming in the background. The previously uptight Laura seems at peace as she sets a camera atop her car to snap a photo of herself and Muriel. Rut-roh. The car starts rolling away, plummets over a short but steep cliff, crashes, and tumbles into the lake, taking with it all of the pair's belongings, including a jar full of cash.

Penniless, out in the middle of East Nowheresville, they seek shelter at a large, outwardly ramshackle house inhabited by Mirta (Ines Estevez), also a single thirtysomething mother, and her two kids: Jimena (Carolina Valverde), who is slightly older than Muriel; and Manuel (Gonzalo Salama), slightly younger. Openly suspicious of strangers, Mirta at first turns Laura and Muriel away, then relents and allows them to stay. After an uneasy get-acquainted period in which the two women swirl around each other without really connecting -- artfully depicted by Milewicz -- they finally have a heart-to-heart one rainy evening, each confessing how she has been abandoned and, in short, screwed over by men, most notably by the father of her children. To the eternal credit of Milewicz and his co-screenwriter Susana Silvestre, their two principals conduct this tell-all session with neither rancor nor cynicism, but instead with sighs and shrugs, admit that, yeah, men can be creeps, while stopping short of eviscerating one-half of the species.

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