A Bao A Qu

Bottom Line: A thudding meditation on motiveless murder that sputters with unexpected moments of extreme and nauseating violence.

Pusan International Film Festival

BUSAN, South Korea -- The title refers to a legend described in Jorge Luis Borges' "Book of Imaginary Beings." A Bao A Qu is a translucent blob that transforms into a luminous beautiful shape when someone climbs the stairs to perfection. However, as no one ever reaches the top, it always returns to its original form. What an apt title for this amorphous blob of a film that lacks the firm hand of direction to fulfill its potential.

Naoki Kato's graduation project has been likened to the caliginous and enigmatic thrillers of Kiyoshi Kurosawa. Kato shares Kurosawa's distanced gaze and desire to present senseless, shattering brutality that ripples beneath placid social surfaces. The comparison doesn't go much further. With a nebulous concept and lackluster delivery, "A Bao A Qu" feels like a puerile exercise.

Novelist Shinpei Hasegawa (Hideo Nakaizumi) has just started on a sequel to his best-selling crime thriller, based on a person who committed suicide after killing nine strangers. For the follow-up, Hasegawa plans to make the killer's teenage brother its subject, and envisages how he copes with the aftermath of the incident. He visits the square where the killings took place and meets a survivor, who recounts how she froze while her boyfriend's skull got smashed.

Unaware of his role in Hasegawa's fictive design, and going about life's chores without much zest or purpose, is Harumi (Toshiki Hirose). Choked with inarticulate rage against a society that consumes personal tragedy/cruelty as fiction, he is galvanized by imagined re-enactments of the murders. His fear that bad blood flows in him becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Although the story outline has the makings of a riveting thriller, the director drains the narrative of psychological depth and coherent dramatic tension. Instead, he opts for brooding atmospherics and an alienating, disjointed structure, with scenes mostly filled with monotony, open-ended questions and pensive expressions connoting emptiness. Two violent eruptions jolt the audience out of their torpor with their suddenness and eviscerating horror, but the impact soon dissipates because of flat and cryptic scenes that follow.

There is a scene early on when the protagonist walks past a woman pushing a pram. With the blink of an eye, a TV set falls from nowhere and crashes down on the pram. The incident has no particular relation to the main narrative, except as tenuous variation on its theme of the random nature of violence and death in everyday life. Watching this film is not unlike such an experience -- though some may leave the cinema feeling as helplessly detached as the passer-by, while others may feel like the bloody glop in the pram.

Kadokawa Culture Promotion Foundation/Graduate School of Film and New Media, Tokyo National University of Fine Arts
Director-screenwriter: Naoki Kato
Based on the novel "Joyful Dance With Betty" by: Keisuke Masuda
Producer: Eijun Sugihara
Director of photography: Satoshi Kubota
Production designer: Fumie Takeuchi
Music: Boris, Uramichi
Costume designer: Maki Takano
Editor: Hiroki Suzuki
Shinpei Hasegawa: Hideo Nakaizumi
Harumi: Toshiki Hirose
Aoba Kawai; Junya Ishii

Running time -- 85 minutes
No MPAA rating