By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
Dave Boyle’s “Man From Reno” begins with a gray screen. Slowly, we see that the camera is aimed dead on at a car windshield in the rain, droplets snaking down. With the rain comes the fog, and through the fog comes a man, a car, another car, a sudden accident, and a lurking mystery.
Boyle’s been fond of multiracial approaches in his earlier films, but this new one is a Japanese/American co-production, featuring two prominent Japanese actors. Ayako Fujitani, the half-Japanese daughter of martial arts film star Stephen Segal, plays Aki, a fantastically popular mystery writer in Japan. Burnt out and nursing secrets of her own, Aki takes it on the run from a book tour, as the Japanese press fulminates over her possible whereabouts.
Aki is far from home and the Japanese press. She’s flown to San Francisco to see some old friends in the city’s considerable Japanese expatriate community. She amuses and confounds with her techniques, apparently borrowed from Sherlock Holmes, of telling a person’s past by simply sizing them up visually for a few seconds.
But Aki can’t solve every puzzle, every person, who comes her way. She’s smart and confident, smartly underplayed by Fujitani with a sly sense of humor over a not-very-well-hidden loneliness. But when a mysterious Japanese man calling himself Akira (Kazuki Kitamura) insinuates herself into her life, she falls for him fast, with slowly unraveling consequences.
One of the two other critics at the press screening for this film walked out about a half-hour before its end. I wondered at first, how he was going to write about the film without knowing the ending. Then I remembered that in film noir, and neo-noir, and thrillers, one doesn’t discuss the ending. So I won’t discuss the ending, but I’ll certainly recommend you stay to the end.
Boyle plays a great deal of focus on compartmentalization. His characters build mental and emotional walls to keep inconvenient and/or painful aspects of themselves away from what they see as their core. And at their core, they vow to keep going, blinkered against the bigger picture. Trouble arises from failure to keep walls up, and when someone’s walls crush someone else’s. Getting to know someone at all well is always dangerous in film noir.
Visual isolation, along with mental isolation, informs the action and the cinematography. Several times, Aki finds herself pinned down inside a hotel room with a visitor outside who may be friendly, may want to kill her, may have something altogether different in mind. Tight cutting between close-ups of eye contact through a chained door, Aki’s alleged talents are put to the test for real, a high-stakes poker game of psyches.
Soon Aki finds herself chasing the mysterious stranger, who turns out to have more layers than an onion, or even a head of lettuce. Her conclusions about what’s really going on roll back and forth like a wave machine.
And the sheriff who ran into trouble in the fog, played by Pepe Serna, will eventually meet her and share what he knows. But even that might not solve the puzzle. Boyle’s given us a puzzle for puzzle-lovers, stocked with memorable characters and suspense. But like most noir, there’s an existential sadness at its darkened heart.
We have no intrinsic meaning, the story tells us. So we have to make our own meanings. And we have to be very, very careful who we trust. (end)
“Man From Reno” plays April 30th through May 4th at the Northwest Film Forum, 1515 12th Ave, between Pike and Pine on Seattle’s Capitol Hill. For prices, show times, etc., visit http://www.nwfilmforum.org/live/page/calendar/3504.
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.