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ISLAND OF MIST AND TREES

02 March 2005

I recently watched Avalon, a movie of ambiguous origin. On the one hand it's shot completely in Poland, using Polish actors and crew. On the other hand, it's directed and conceived by acclaimed Japanese director Mamoru Oshii and bears heavily his unmistakable, and unmistakably Japanese, signature.

Of course I know the movie's Japanese but I thought it'd make a good intro. Sue me.

Anyway, Avalon turned out to be a really typical Oshii-movie. You may know him from anime-films such as Patlabor 1 and 2 and the mildly overrated Ghost in the Shell. Avalon bears a lot of similarities to those, especially the latter. Put short, the movie's about a virtual reality wargame and a brooding lady who excells in it and even makes a living playing the game. She then discovers there's a mythical secret level only for the most dyinghard of diehards, and decides to go there. What follows is a recognizable Oshii-mix of lush visual imagery, hypnotizingly slow (but captivating!) pace and surreal, if somewhat clich?d, philosophizing on reality and life.

There are a couple of things I'd like to point out. First there's, like I said, the pacing. There will be numerous actionpacked sequences where you will see virtual battles played out in all their gritty realism. A tremendous explosion of violence. And yet, these always feel so incredibly tranquil that it's almost bizarre. You're watching gunfights and people blasting copters out of the sky, and yet you're almost being seduced into a trance. Maybe it's the dominant sepia effect, or maybe the aurally dictinctive choice to let the music play as an almost unhearable background noise. But it's great, even though it appears in all of Oshii's movies. Yet where they were anime, he seemingly also pulls it off with live-action movies.

The following paragraph contains a mild, secondary spoiler. For those who want their movie completely unspoiled (I care, that's why I'm saying this here), skip the next alinea.

Then there's this little thing which I would gladly believe is an Oshii signature. Just like in Ghost in the Shell, somewhere near the end of Avalon there's a climactic battle against a giant robot of some sort. But just like the earlier movie, you don't realize that until much later! It's such a strange thing: you're witnessing what should be, and in all respects is, the grand, epic battle-at-the-end, the one you've been expecting since frame one, but then you kind of miss it. Because you don't realize that that's it, that's the one you've been waiting for. For some reason, Oshii always manages to not tell you it's coming. It always happens suddenly with him. Even more importantly, he never tells you that This is it, and you don't get it yourself because with him, the big giant beast at the end always comes just before the real confrontation. It's always not quite the big boss, but some seemingly arbitrary mini-boss. Only then later there is no big boss, or the real important stuff is handled in a smaller-scale scenario. I'm not saying this is good or bad, it's just so curious. So typical.

Regardless, Avalon is a swell movie. I liked it. Mamoru Oshii is growing on me more and more, and I think I'll recognize him in his next movie even better. Unless he surprises us, of course.

Roderick.