Written and directed by Sabu

With Tomoro Taguchi, Diamond Yukai and Shinichi Tsutsumi

Distributed by Shooting Gallery Films

Opens November 10th


Perhaps in response to the commercial success of Tom Tykwer's RUN LOLA RUN last year, Americans belatedly seem to be waking up to the pleasures of pop movies from Europe and Asia that don't  star Jackie Chan or Jet Li . LOLA's distributor, Sony Pictures Classics, has been cranking up the hype on Ang Lee's forthcoming CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON loud enough to have already provoked a backlash on-line, almost two months before its American release.  Even if I have many reservations about Lee Myung-Se's NOWHERE TO HIDE, Lions Gate's acquisition of it is a hopeful sign, and if it does well, I hope someone will pick up SHIRI, a much better Korean action film. ADRENALINE DRIVE, the Japanese entry in the first season of the Shooting Gallery's traveling program last spring, was a minor find, and NON-STOP (made in 1996, and first shown in North America under the title DANGAN RUNNER) is good enough to excite my curiosity about the three films Sabu has made after it.

The narrative of NON-STOP proceeds in fits and starts.  Yasuda (Taguchi), a man despised by his co-workers and ignored by the woman he ineptly courts, decides to impress them by robbing a bank. However, he leaves the customary robber's mask at home and decides to stop by a convenience store to shoplift one. Caught by store clerk Aizawa (Yukai), he fires at him, grazing his arm. Unbeknownst to Yasuda, Aizawa is a heroin addict whose drug problems have sidelined his dreams of rock stardom, and he's so high that the pain doesn't affect him. Following Yasuda outside, he chases after him. To complicate matters, he runs into Takeda (Tsutusumi), a yakuza to whom he's heavily in debt and whom Yasuda bought a gun from. The three men chase each other obsessively through the streets of Tokyo well into the night.

I'm not sure why NON-STOP took four years to find American distribution, but obscure cultural references can't be the reason. While it's a yakuza film, it also partakes of an international lingua franca of hip, stylized nihilism, making it a kissing cousin to films like RUN LOLA RUN, GO and Wai Ka-Fai's TOO MANY WAYS TO BE NO.1. It owes  a large debt to PULP FICTION, but as David Bordwell has observed, Tarantino-influenced Asian films have tended to draw from his playful structures, while American filmmakers have  aped his dialogue instead.

What most distinguishes NON-STOP from contemporary Hollywood genre fare is its juggling of time and speed, like a DJ spinning excerpts of a record backwards or at 16 and 78 rpm . (In this respect,  POINT BLANK and Steven Soderbergh's thrillers are among its  closest American relatives.) For an action movie, it's strangely oneiric, even  borderline melancholic. Its present may be a continual marathon, but Sabu varies the pace by  speaking in  the past and conditional tenses frequently. Especially in the first 30 minutes , the action is fleshed-out by flashbacks, as well as the device of having the same events depicted from two characters' point of view. (Aizawa's first-person perspective suggests that Sabu thinks heroin is a psychedelic.) Without flashbacks, NON-STOP would have no character development whatsoever. However, it goes beyond this relatively conventional technique by dramatizing its characters' fantasies: heroic self-mythologizing and hot sex scenes with women they pass on the street.

NASHVILLE SCENE critic Noel Murray has theorized that the long-term impact of DVD may result in a cinema of set pieces that don't add up to an organic whole, proposing Paul Thomas Anderson's BOOGIE NIGHTS and MAGNOLIA as precursors of this new breed of narrative. While I don't quite agree with his argument, NON-STOP strikes me as exactly the kind of  film he's talking about. It's not exactly a succession of set pieces (in fact, Sabu places his final climax offscreen, and the overall flow matters more than any individual scene), yet it feels like a work whose pieces have been put together in arbitrary order and could be re-arranged to much the same effect. It might be a worthwhile exercise to watch it in random order on DVD and see if it holds up in this shuffled format, as Nicolas Saada  did with GROUNDHOG DAY for his CAHIERS DU CINEMA column LE LECTEUR DE DVD.

Sabu's ease with non-linear time frames produces a weightlessness that's not always beneficial, although it's appropriate to men  who find their redemption - to the extent that  one exists - in velocity. For Yasuda, Aizawa and Takeda, even a ridiculous quest better than the messes they've made of their lives and the one they're heading towards once the race ends. Their world is a club of immature boys, with women relegated to distant, unattainable objects of desire or nagging, maternal figures.   The chase's main  pleasure  comes when exhaustion begins to work like a drug, allowing them to start dreaming with their eyes open. This state of hallucinatory euphoria, commingled with dread, is the film's presiding mood, producing a finale with a very Japanese mix of calm and chaos and an ending that just barely rises above casual nihilism. There may not be much hope for the characters of NON-STOP, but any film  this enthusiastic about  editing's unlimited temporal and narrative possibilities  - while avoiding Oliver Stone's brand of AVID  abuse - can't help but feel a little optimistic.