SANTA BARBARA — Self-consciously mixing elements of “The Petrified Forest” and “Bagdad Cafe,” the unevenly paced “The Painted Desert” also calls to mind Robert Altman’s dream narrative “Three Women.” This amalgam sounds like it could make for a confusing narrative, and it does. Director Masato Harado’s maiden American outing is not without merit, but it shifts tone one too many times for comfort. Commercially speaking, this handsome production should be of interest mostly to festgoers and the hard-core art-house crowd.
Action mainly transpires in a dusty old cafe located about three miles from nowhere in the ever-mystical American Southwest.
The dilapidated old dive is run by Sari Hatano (Nobu McCarthy), a cynical Japanese-American woman, and is frequented by several mobster bodyguards including the crustily affable Al (James Gammon).
Sari discovers a mysterious stranger (Kayuza Kimura) — the type who only shows up in movies — who speaks little English but, we soon discover, is a knockout nouvelle Japanese chef. So far so good.
Somewhere near the halfway point, co-scenarists Rebecca Ross (who also edited) and Harada overload the film with plot elements, resulting in information gridlock.
The bad guys are preyed upon by invisible but lethal rivals. Sari and her boarder Barbara (Priscilla Pointer) reveal secrets dating back to World War II, involving the forced internment of the Japanese and anti-American propaganda. And of course, the mysterious stranger has more up his sleeve than sashimi.
The forced mating of all these elements pulls the audience out of the film long before its one-too-many endings.
Unfortunate, because the multigenerational story of the intermingling of Americans, Japanese and Japanese-Americans is solid, imbued with powerful, sad memories.
The gangster subplot just gets in the way since there’s nothing particularly well observed or interesting about these underworld louts. Every time the filmmakers leave the cafe to spend time with them, the life goes right out of the film.
The appealing James Gammon is the sole goon with any charm, and he’s got some to spare.
But it’s the interplay between McCarthy, Pointer and Kimura that is the film’s emotional core. McCarthy is a wonderful character actress with a natural grace. Pointer has few words but lends an air of palpable tension to the film. Kimura’s character isn’t as well delineated, for obvious reasons, but he also makes a strong impression.
Tech credits are superb. David Bridges and Bernard Salzmann capably split the duties of capturing the parched beauty of the southwestern desert, framing scenes with an almost ritual-like precision that makes them appear more profound than they probably are.
The kitschily evocative production design is by Rae Fox and only the scoring by Masahiro Kawasaki is occasionally overripe. More refreshing are those great old Gene Autry tunes.