Film Review: After School

BOTTOM LINE: A clever and precisely-plotted play on the "perfect crime" chestnut.

CANNES -- A taut and ironic hustler movie that keeps turning the tables on the audience, "After School" requires mental concentration to disentangle the web of deceit surrounding three middle school alumni and the private eye who comes between them under the watchful eyes and iron fists of the yakuza.

Although not many Japanese critics warmed to this sophomore feature of Kenji Uchida, who won four awards at during Cannes Critics Week 2005 for his debut "A Stranger of Mine," this sophomore effort is still worth a look for the director's adult wit, artistic coherence and the subject's remake potential.

Approaching his screenplay just like he's planning the perfect heist, Uchida has constructed a plot so dense that every scene or casual cutaway holds the key to a dramatic reversal, and every character is a pawn that could turn into a Queen. In this micro-managed, cerebral world, there is little room for character development or authentic emotions. Or so the audience is led to assume, until the denouement reveals that life's biggest jinx may be to make assumptions about people and let experience and cynicism erode the simple values taught at school.

Moving beyond the mathematical structure, two-set production design and theatrical triptych of actors in his lauded debut, Uchida taxes the audience with more scattered locations, a cluster of characters and a final revelation sequence that reaches far and near in time to explain everything without room for conjecture. However, he handles multiple scenes shifts and demanding fast edits like a pro. The ensemble cast also eases stretched credibility with convincing portraits of an unworldly school teacher, a square salaryman with a double life and the comically down-at-heel gumshoe.

Tokyo Broadcasting System, Inc/Groundbreaker

Cast: Yo Oizumi, Kuranosuke Sasaki, Masato Sakai, Takako Tokiwa, Tomoko Tabata.

Screenwriter-director: Kenji Uchida.
Executive producer: Makato Fujimoto.
Producers: Satoshi Akagi, Hiroshi Onishi, Daisuke Ooka.
Director of photography: Kozo Shibazaki.
Production designer: Koiichi Kanekatsu.
Music: Kei Haneoka.
Editor: Shinichi Fushima.
Sales: Tokyo Broadcasting System, Inc.
103 minutes.