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Ghost Dog:

Zhang Yimou began his career as a cinematographer, and his first film as a director, Red Sorghum, established vivid, flowing color as his trademark. But the director had already shown some impatience with his ravishing style before he broke with lover Gong Li, the muse and star of his first seven films. Of his previous movies, Not One Less most closely resembles The Story of Qiu Ju, an austere docudrama in which Li played a peasant woman who travels to a large city to protest the treatment of her husband by the village chief. Shot in part with hidden cameras, the film was dedicated both to accurately depicting contemporary China and to dispelling the sumptuous artifice of Zhang’s previous work.

Not One Less goes even further, banishing professional actors altogether. The central character is 13-year-old Wei Minzhi, played by 13-year-old Wei Minzhi, who heads a cast of amateurs. (The final credits uphold the spirit of communalism by identifying each of these players by his or her occupation, most of which are proletarian.) In scripter Shi Xiangsheng’s scenario, Wei is a recent primary school graduate pressed into teaching children only a few years younger then herself while veteran teacher Gao (Gao Enman) goes to visit his dying mother. Wei’s qualifications? She can write and tentatively sing one song in praise of Chairman Mao.

The film is set in dusty, remote Hebei Province and has an improvisational look—Zhang used hidden cameras again—but its deceptively artless developments are not simply local color. Wei’s pro-Mao ditty exemplifies the country that China pretends to be—a land of cooperation, self-sacrifice, and idealistic striving. Wei, however, represents a new China, one that even she won’t fully understand until she takes a trip that parallels Qiu Ju’s.

Wei has no interest in and little aptitude for teaching. She simply writes lessons on the blackboard with the 26 pieces of chalk requisitioned her by Gao, then sits outside the ramshackle schoolhouse to prevent any of the students from leaving. She doesn’t know how to deal with the kids, especially class clown Zhang Huike (played by 10-year-old Zhang Huike), who, in the ultimate sacrilege, crushes some of the precious chalk underfoot. Still, Wei takes one assignment to heart: Explaining that the class has already lost 12 students, Gao promises Wei a 10-yuan bonus if she keeps all 28 remaining kids from dropping out. “Not one less,” becomes Wei’s motto.

Of course it’s Huike who leaves, heading to bustling, charmless Jiangjiakou City to find a job to support his ailing, widowed mother. Wei decides to bring him back and enlists her class to raise money for the bus fare. Barely more experienced than her charges, Wei accepts the students’ notions of how much money the trip will cost and how the cash can be earned. (In one poignant scene, Wei and more than two dozen kids share two cans of warm Coca-Cola, bought with money they wrongly think is surplus.) Ultimately, the teacher must hitchhike to Jiangjiakou City, where finding Huike will be an overwhelming challenge.

The film’s deliberate pace and modest means don’t change once Wei arrives in the city, but everything else does. Wei’s ode to Mao echoes hollowly in a place where only money and bureaucratic procedure matter. As they wander the streets separately, Wei and Huike must beg for food; the people who offer Wei advice mostly counsel her to give up. Still, Wei is implacably focused on her task. Her stubbornness is both bewildering and inspiring, a profound rebuke to the compromises that are a feature of adult life, not exclusively in China. Finally, the film’s dry style yields to a powerful surge of emotion, but what lingers is Zhang’s candid portrait of a country where the old dream offers little protection from the brutal forces that have supplanted it.

For more than a decade after his low-key but triumphant debut, Stranger Than Paradise, Jim Jarmusch tried to reproduce that film’s deadpan charm, a task that was increasingly incompatible with his interest in indulging the new pals he had made on the international film festival circuit. Then Dead Man brilliantly broke the director’s own mold, with its comic yet metaphysical journey into American myth. A critical success, despite befuddling audiences and its own marketers, Dead Man represented a new sort of Jarmusch film. As its title suggests, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai is another example of the director’s new mode, but not a dazzling one: An intriguing but underwhelming film, Ghost Dog demonstrates that Dead Man’s formula is no more repeatable than Stranger Than Paradise’s.

Jarmusch’s self-styled samurai is a bridge-and-tunnel assassin (the film was mostly shot in Jersey City) who spends his private time taking care of his pigeons and reading from Hagakure, an 18th-century samurai guide that counsels Zen-style detachment from life. Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker) supposedly learned his samurai cool directly from the source, although it’s clear that Jarmusch didn’t. The director’s vision is derived from such Japanese directors as Kurosawa, but also from Jean-Pierre Melville and John Woo, who reinterpreted Bushido, the samurai code, as the basis for stylized contemporary gangster flicks. (Both Kurosawa and Melville are thanked in the credits.) To this tradition, Jarmusch adds an electro-stroll soundtrack by RZA, a member of Wu-Tang Clan, the rap collective that takes much of its imagery from Hong Kong action flicks.

Technically, Ghost Dog is not a samurai but a ronin—a masterless warrior. The solitary hitman has sworn fealty to Louie (John Tormey), an aging Mafia functionary who sometimes hires Dog to whack troublesome people, but that doesn’t make him part of Louie’s eccentric pack of aging, purposeless thugs. (Even before the guns start blazing, these guys are clearly a dying breed.) For one thing, Dog is black—which is one of the film’s essential themes. Just as Dead Man was haunted by the white man’s dispossession of Native Americans—a subject to which Jarmusch obliquely returns here—Ghost Dog is defined by contemporary urban America’s racial divide. The latter is addressed both earnestly and ironically: The youthful Dog first met Louie when the latter rescued him from a dead-serious racist assault, whereas one of Louie’s cohorts is a cartoonish Public Enemy fan who likes to rap along with Flavor Flav in the privacy of his own bathroom.

The plot on which these vignettes are hung is simple but functional: Dog is hired to kill the guy who’s sleeping with the big boss’s daughter, Louise (Tricia Vessey). She’s supposed to be away when the hit happens, but instead she’s right there, reading a copy of Rashomon, the volume of Ryunosuke Akutagawa stories from which Kurosawa adapted his breakthrough film. Because Louise has glimpsed Dog, the boss decrees that Dog must be killed. Thus begins a showdown that, despite its absurdist touches, is the closest thing to a conventional action movie that Jarmusch has ever attempted—even if it is scored to Andrew Cyrille’s free jazz and Willie Williams’ “Armagideon Time.”

The director counters the almost-conventional plot with his trademark laconic dialogue, Robby Muller’s luminous cinematography, and a playful array of pop-cult detritus: Both Louise and her father, for example, have a thing for old cartoons, so the gunplay is punctuated by the appearances of Felix the Cat, Betty Boop, and other animated antiques.

Much more conventional is the coolly uninvolved Ghost Dog’s sentimental side: The killer really cares about his ice-cream-vendor friend (Isaach de Bankole, previously seen in Jarmusch’s Night on Earth), who intuits Dog’s every comment even though he speaks only French, and Pearline (Camille Winbush), a girl who shares Dog’s passionate, if motley, taste in books. (She’s reading The Wind in the Willows, The Souls of Black Folk, Night Nurse, and Frankenstein.) Soulfully taciturn as he is, Whitaker’s Ghost Dog is almost believable as the killer who doubles as the neighborhood’s amateur pedagogue. Still, you have to wonder what the Hagakure would have to say about such conventional attachments.

Yugoslavia’s self-immolation has provoked several black comedies, most notably Emir Kusturica’s Underground, as well as a few earnest dramas that contrasted the slaughter in the Balkans with the comfortable, aloof life of Western Europeans. Beautiful People, the first feature by Bosnian-born Briton Jasmin Dizdar, combines both genres in a comedy that also borrows from the ensemble-cast sagas of Robert Altman. The result is remarkably skillful but fatally flawed, a film that essentially uses the death of Dizdar’s old country to flatter his new one.

The complex narrative essentially matches a half-dozen ex-Yugoslavian refugees with twice as many Londoners for the edification and, indeed, redemption of the latter. With the upcoming World Cup sounding the film’s one-Europe theme, Serbian refugee Pero (Edin Dzandzanovic) runs from a possible confrontation with a cop, only to be hit by a car. He ends up in a hospital, where intern Portia (Charlotte Coleman, Hugh Grant’s Four Weddings and a Funeral pal) takes a liking to him. For Pero, marrying Portia would be a way of securing his immigration status; for Portia, marrying Pero would declare her independence from her wealthy, reactionary family.

Meanwhile, three young thugs plan a trip to Holland for some World Cup-related hooliganism. Griffin (Danny Nussbaum) has broken his mother’s heart and earned his father’s scorn by staying jobless and perennially stoned. After he passes out at the airport, the useless youth is accidentally loaded onto a cargo plane whose contents are dumped over Bosnia. Once on the ground, Griffin finds that his supply of heroin and his skill with needles are prized in field hospitals. He acquires not only a higher calling, but also a young refugee to bring home to mum.

The schema also involves a London doctor (Nicholas Farrell) whose despair over his failing marriage is lifted by the chance to help a young refugee (Walentine Giorgiewa) who has come to accept that she’s about to give birth to a baby conceived in a wartime rape; a BBC correspondent (Gilbert Martin) who comes back from Bosnia shell-shocked—a condition his artist wife (Siobhan Redmond) feels helpless to remedy; and a Serb and a Croat assigned to the same hospital room who continue to skirmish despite their injuries, annoying their roommate, who turns out to be a veteran of a cultural conflict much closer to London.

As they unspool, these stories begin to overlap: Most of the characters are connected, if only indirectly, to the hospital where Portia works or the school where Griffin’s father is the headmaster. Dizdar intertwines the characters as skillfully as Paul Thomas Anderson did in Magnolia, but both films lack thematic depth worthy of their narrative finesse. If Beautiful People doesn’t slump during its final reel the way Magnolia does, neither does it justify its elaborate machinations.

Dizdar’s film essentially reruns the insulting premise of Michael Winterbottom’s Welcome to Sarajevo: The bloodshed in the Balkans, nasty as it was for the people who happened to live there, was a wonderful opportunity for Brits to elevate themselves. Despite some unpleasantness with the immigration police and a few spins by that creaky old contraption, the British class system, Beautiful People’s London is as lively, cosmopolitan, and self-congratulatory as Sliding Doors’. The sound that leads into the final montage is that of a gospel choir, announcing that God’s work is being done in the heaven on Earth that is multiculti Britain.

It’s the end of the world as we know it, and U.S. President Walter Emerson (Kevin Pollack) does fine in Deterrence, a wacky jingoistic thriller that shows that Dr. Strangelove still lives in the heart of writer-director Rod Lurie. Staged—more for budget than dramatic reasons—entirely on a single set, the movie imagines a campaigning president snowbound in a Colorado diner when he gets word that Iraq has invaded Kuwait yet again. It’s 2007, and the Strategic Defense Initiative still isn’t working, but Emerson can think of only one answer: a nuclear strike, which isn’t a popular decision with his national security adviser (Sheryl Lee Ralph) or his chief of staff (poor Timothy Hutton), not to mention the ordinary folks in the diner who try to second-guess the bold, confident chief executive.

Those Americans who survived the Cold War may note that many U.S. presidents—including some who were widely understood to be none too bright—recognized that the country had other options in a crisis than dropping the big one. But Emerson knows something that no one else does, which is what turns the movie from merely annoying into an utter waste of time. With its blather about America’s lack of readiness for war—President Dubya apparently didn’t undertake that essential military buildup—Deterrence starts out like a right-wing advertorial, but then it becomes a cheap trick. Even after the final cheat, however, the film keeps its sanctimony: “Fear is our nation’s cancer,” Emerson tells the country in a televised address. Yeah, but dimwitted nuke-war thrillers are our nation’s eczema. CP