Exquisite lensing fails to prevent “Big River,” a Japanese directed, English-lingo, U.S.-based road movie, from being dammed by dead-end narrative tributaries. New York-based director Atsushi Funahashi follows up his 2002 “Echoes” with a Jim Jarmusch-like movie that recalls the work of producer Jim Stark (“Mystery Train,” “Cold Fever”) but without the wise guy wit. Film’s sheer beauty may help position it at indie-flavored fests but the faux-naif tone will be too dull for more general auds. Film is skedded for Japanese release next summer.
In the middle of the Arizona desert, punkish Japanese hitchhiker Teppei (Joe Odagiri) crosses paths with Ali (Kavi Raz), a middle-aged Pakistani who arrived Stateside the day before. Ali has a car, and Teppei has cigarettes, so they team up to travel together.
When the car breaks down, Teppei offers to walk to the gas station five miles away to buy gas. But he’s shocked when Ali balks at his request for gas money.
While Ali stays with the car, Teppei encounters the leggy Sarah (Chloe Snyder), who looks like she wandered off the set of “The Dukes of Hazzard.” Teppei enlists her to go with him in his quest for gas.
Ali (presumably Muslim) is agitated by Sarah’s minimalist attire, but when her superior knowledge of automobiles reveals it’s actually a dirty fuel line that has stranded the two men, he accepts her assistance. She takes them to her home:a trailer park where she lives with her drunken father.
As an attraction develops between Sarah and Teppei, Ali reveals he came to the U.S. to retrieve the Pakistani wife who left him. Sarah and Teppei decide to help him. Performances are deliberately stilted to match the awkward mood, but Odagiri, who has a limited grasp of English, overplays his role. Thin yarn leaves protags with nowhere to go, and, though the healing power of forgiveness is promoted as a theme, it’s nullified by the characters’ communication problems, which prevent any dilemmas from truly being discussed.
Lenser/co-writer Eric Van Den Brulle seems to lean on his beautiful desert landscapes at the expense of a satisfying narrative. Likewise, the characters remain first-draft ciphers, lacking the depth or complexity to engender any real affection.
Score by Janek Duszynski matches the impressive photography and periodically gives the film a much-needed boost.