29 April 2007 | Chris Knipp
He loses his passport and his memory, and it's all a lark
"Be careful. I will fall in love with somebody who needs me
. Just kidding," says the girl who comes to rescue Oshima, when he's lost in the desert after his girlfriend, May, went off to find a police station supposedly only a few miles away, and was gone for four hours.
So begins the essential story of amour-LEGENDE, though not the film itself, because it's here that the young man who's called "Oshima" has just dozed off and then wakes up to find he's lost his memory, but has a new girl there in front of him saying her name is Coco -- a girl to tell him what's happening, where he is, and so forth.
Amour-LEGENDE's essential charm lies in several elements. Though being trapped in a desert on an island off the coast of somewhere in South America, locked out of one's rental car (a cheery light-blue Mercedes) and losing one's memory don't sound like easy things to deal with, both of the principals, or all three of them, since the two women are played by the same actress, Rachel Ngan, and the man is played by Yousuke Kubosuko, have a light-hearted quality. There's something dashing and casual about the stylish Kubosuko, perhaps a profound indifference engendered from the actor's recently recovering from a fall from his nine-storey-high condo or his controversial advocacy of marijuana use. Ngan was born in Hong Kong and educated in Canada and she answers Kubosuko's Japanese remarks in casual, slangy American English. Both, it later turns out, are also fluent in Chinese. She speaks Spanish, which comes in handy dealing with the locals. Perhaps this constant alternation of languages helps contribute to a sense that these people are on separate planets. It also means this is a "pan-Asian production." But director Wu has used that polyglot aspect to his own ends. The linguistic flourishes provide amusement and a certain detachment.
There is also something consistently light and beautiful and elegant about the visuals. The desert images are a little washed-out. The actors are both very easy on the eyes. The unflappable (but at times lightly annoyed) Oshima never loses his composure, and this somehow lightens the viewer's load in going through an experience that never seems to move forward. Midway, it returns to the beginning. Along the way, flashbacks finally allow us to guess what might have happened. The long-haired Oshima, somewhat improbably an office executive (he seems more like a playboy or a fashion model -- or why not both?), lived with his wife in Taipei. It was there that he began an affair with May (Ngan, of course), whereupon they decided to go off for an idyll on this island she'd found out about called La Bamba del Corazon. Incidentally "Oshima" means "big island" in Japanese, so maybe Oshima is happening inside somebody's head. And by the way his wife's name was April, but it seems that he may just call her that, as he comes to call the new woman (whom we see as May) May, though she says her name is Coco, just because he likes these names.
Sitting in the nice hotel where Coco and Oshima wind up, she says, "You look like a vet." A veterinarian. How do you look like a vet? And he is one. He wonders if the island really exists. The map they have found for the island in May's empty suitcase is really a map of the Egyptian along the Nile.
Oshima thinks Coco, or maybe May, took away his memory. There are hints of a misogynistic attitude in the film, and it's firmly from the young man's point of view. May took away Oshima's memory? Could this film be misogynistic? When May and Oshima went to a hotel on the island (this is before May disappears), they meet the King and Queen of the island. Later the Spanish-speaking king reappears as a man in evening clothes wearing a large squirrel's head and talks to Oshima and Oshima answers in Japanese. They understand each other. And they wonder why. Could this all be a dream? Coco and Oshima continue to look for May, on a place called Snow Mountain which is where May had intended for the couple to go. Finally Coco disappears in another hotel, and Oshima meets May but she denies they know each other and says, repeating what they were told eons earlier, "If a couple breaks up on Snow Mountain, it will take eight hundred million light years before they can meet again." And Oshima says, "No one's told you? A light year is a unit of distance." End of story. Amour-LEGENDE is just a diversion. But Mi-sen Wu's light touch makes it work. (It's an elegant puzzler like Resnais's Last Year at Marienbad; and it has links with the Antonioni of L'Avventura). To be harsh with it would be to "break a butterfly upon a wheel."
amour-LEGENDE is being shown as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival 2007.