Maverick Japanese filmmaker Sogo Ishii, best known for "The Crazy Family," has come up with something rather different here --- a haunting, dreamlike mystery, filmed in black-and-white, about a young woman who fears that the man she loves will murder her. A stylish mood piece, this could attract audiences in some international big-city venues, and is a natural for the fest circuit and specialized tube slotting. Pic is based on a book by Kyusaku Yumeno, who died in 1936 and whose writing embraced the mystery thriller, fairy tale and fantasy. The premise of "Labyrinth of Dreams" is, on the surface, absurdly improbable; we are asked to believe that a serial killer, a bus driver who murders young women he has seduced, would single out as his victims female bus conductors and kill them by deliberately crashing the buses on which they're traveling. It seems, to put it mildly, a cumbersome modus operandi, but somehow it's plausible in the unreal atmosphere Ishii creates.

Pic, which is set in a small town several decades ago, opens with a bus and a train traveling at high speeds toward a fateful railway crossing one dark and rain-lashed night, with the narrator informing us they’ll crash in nine seconds. Meanwhile, Tyuyako (Tomoka Kurotani), an efficient and helpful young bus conductor, writes to her friend, Tomiko (Rena Komine) that she’s in love with her driver, Niitaka (Tadanobu Asano); soon afterwards, the bus Niitaka is driving with Tyuyaku on board collides with a car in a narrow tunnel; she’s killed, while her fiance survives.

At the funeral, Tomiko is told by another conductor that there are rumors circulating about the existence of a serial killer-bus driver. Tomiko has by this time decided to become a conductor herself, and is employed on a bus route in another small town. Before long, a new driver arrives — Niitaka. Naturally, Tomiko is very wary of the handsome stranger, but gradually she finds herself falling in love with him and throws caution to the winds. As she tells herself, “In my boring life, a chance for adventure has finally arrived.”

Ishii handles this very strange story as though it were some kind of beautiful nightmare. A very physical director, he expertly uses image and sound to propel the viewer into the heart of the mystery. Train buffs will have a field day at the frequent highly charged sequences of a steam train hurtling toward its destiny in the night.

Despite the odds, the human characters are given considerable dimension, too, with Rena Komine disturbingly effective as the naive, foolhardy Tomiko and Tadanobu Asano evoking a brooding presence as the ardent lover who may, or may not, be an elaborate killer.

Along the way, Ishii throws in teasingly enigmatic moments, like the occasional appearances of a strange man in cloak and hat who seems to have no fear of oncoming trains. It all makes for a gripping, decidedly eerie experience, and Hiroyuki Onodera’s sinister score and Norimichi Kasamatsu’s pristine monochrome images add to the chilly beauty of this strange, haunting film.

Labyrinth of Dreams

Japanese

Production

A KSS Films production. (International Sales: KSS Films, Tokyo). Produced by Atsuyuki Shimoda, Kenichi Kamata. Executive producers, Yasuhiro Ito, Satoshi Kanno. Directed, written by Sogo Ishii, from a novel by Kyusaku Yumeno.

Crew

Camera (B&W), Norimichi Kasamatsu; editor, Kan Suzuki; music, Hiroyuki Onodera; production design, Toshihiro Isomi; sound, Masakatsu Shiobara; assistant director, Yoshimasa Fujie. Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (Panorama), Feb. 17, 1997. Running time: 90 MIN.

With

Tomiko ... Rena Komine Niitaka Tatsuo ... Tadanobu Asano Chieko ... Kotomi Kyono Aiko ... Kirika Mano Tyuyako ... Tomoka Kurotani
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