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Blue Hour

Reportedly made for $1,000, Francisco Aliwalas' impressive "Blue Hour," like Miguel Coyula's similarly budgeted and equally colorful "Red Cockroaches," almost compensates viewers for the hours of poorly lit footage that can be laid at the doorstep of digital technology.

With:
With: Arthur Acuna, Orlando Pabotoy, Martha Millan, Dave Vescio, W. Mike Wilson.

Reportedly made for $1,000, Francisco Aliwalas’ impressive “Blue Hour,” like Miguel Coyula’s similarly budgeted and equally colorful “Red Cockroaches,” almost compensates viewers for the hours of poorly lit footage that can be laid at the doorstep of digital technology. But unlike Coyula’s computer-manipulated experiments, Aliwalas’ virtuoso visuals rely on film-based standbys such as montage and guerrilla location shooting. Paranoid thriller, setting its hunted, haunted hero wandering through a labyrinth of Gotham skyscrapers, could develop a devoted cult following on homevid and cable.

John (Arthur Acuna) comes to New York at the behest of childhood chum Catfish (Orlando Pabotoy), who is deeply in debt to a bunch of nefarious mafioso-types. John reluctantly agrees to participate in a highly paid medical experiment to bail Catfish out.

At a vaguely sinister edifice on the East River, he drinks a strange turquoise liquid and awakens three days later with no memory — only fragmentary, chaotic images — of what transpired. Now in the thrall of that imagery, and of strange, hypnosis-triggering phone calls, John, aka “Patient 20,” struggles to understand the monstrous, murderous web he has been lured into.

Script gives short shrift to character, motivation or logic, borrowing heavily from both versions of “Manchurian Candidate” but stripping the story of political specificity. The result is an amorphous paranoia that’s curiously old-fashioned visually (thugs in big black cars) and in its methods of surveillance (implanted homing devices) as well as its overall concept (right-wing ubermenschen of no particular ilk). Indeed, in the absence of any specific wartime background, pic is left with an absurdly displaced childhood grudge as a basis for its Armageddon.

Similarly, Johnny’s hallucinatory flash-backs don’t register as fragmented remembrances of actual events or even as primal angst, but just as confused indications that Something Weird Has Happened.

Unlike Aliwalas’ debut feature, the well-received but never released multicultural romantic comedy “Disoriented,” “Blue” relies little on the thesping of its all-Asian cast, though Acuna registers well as the confused hero. But if pal Catfish and potential love interest Martha Millan (in the Janet Leigh/Kimberly Elise role as the mysterious woman who may or may not be a pawn of the omnipresent Foundation) fail to conjure up much depth, it doesn’t matter because Johnny’s true co-star is Gotham itself, which, as filtered through Aliwalas’ lens (he produced, directed, scored, shot and edited the film), is nothing short of riveting.

Aliwalas is in his element when he fashions emotion out of everyday urban experience. The bars, waiting rooms, streets and waterways of the city, as in classic location-shot movies like “D.O.A.,” are transformed by anxiety to form a mosaic of metallic, reflective surfaces and a dark maze of dead-ends, all constructing a monument to faceless conglomerate power.

Blue Hour

Production: A Franciso Aliwalas film. Produced, directed, written, edited by Aliwalas.

Crew: Camera (color, 24p), Aliwalas; music, sound, Aliwalas; visual effects supervisor, Cedrick Chan. Reviewed at New York Asian-American Film Festival, July 17, 2005. Running time: 81MIN.

With: With: Arthur Acuna, Orlando Pabotoy, Martha Millan, Dave Vescio, W. Mike Wilson.

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