FILM / A master steps out of the shadows: Tokyo Story (U) Director: Yasujiro Ozu (Japan); American Heart (15) Director: Martin Bell (US); The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb (12) Director: Dave Borthwick (UK)

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The Independent Culture
The great Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu is a film-makers' film-maker (admirers include Wenders, who dedicated a film to him, and Schrader, who wrote a book on his 'transcendental style). And many a weighty critical tome has been devoted to his 'poetics'. But if you think this makes his films sound arty and abstruse, you would be much mistaken: they convey - for all their artistry - an overwhelming emotional simplicity and directness. In them, you can both marvel at the limpid, pared- down technique and cry buckets.

In Tokyo Story (1953) (U), an elderly couple living in southern Japan visit their children in Tokyo, but their excitement and pride are slowly eroded by their family's indifference - traditional values have been eaten up by the pressures of big city life. 'Isn't life disappointing?' one character asks bitterly at the famous conclusion. 'Yes,' replies another - but with a radiant smile. The dominant tone is serene and affirming.

Ozu's slow-burning narrative style builds up a portrait of the family members, their relationships and daily lives through an accretion of quiet detail. The repeated shots of empty landscapes - belching chimneys, rumbling railways - serve as punctuation and gradually accrue a symbolic weight of their own. The distributors are paying us a huge compliment by releasing this and five more of Ozu's best films at a feather- headed time of year. If there is a Santa Claus, they will do sell-out business.

Jeff Bridges is nudging that dangerous age where the leading-man roles begin to dwindle, and now seems to be repositioning himself as a character actor - whence his villain in The Vanishing and his seedy lounge pianist in The Fabulous Baker Boys. As a grubby, stubbly ex-convict trying to regain his balance in American Heart (15), he offers a variant on the latter option. And his performance is more than serviceable, as is Edward Furlong's as his pinched, hollow-eyed son.

But this is standard-issue Hollywood stuff: son / father(-figure) bonding is the storyline of choice in these caring Nineties - variants may be observed in Mel Gibson's Man Without a Face and Clint Eastwood's forthcoming A Perfect World. The director, Martin Bell, previously made a fine documentary, Streetwise, about the down-and-out kids of Seattle, and in the new film it's the marginal characters who provide all the real colour, life and humanity. Shot with fluid, documentary energy, these teenage hookers, strippers, street punks and transvestites jostle successfully with the Hollywood star for our attention and compassion.

Now here's a term to conjure with: the 'post-industrial' world of The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb (12). Through these mean, vermin-ridden streets, tiny Tom wanders trying to duck the attentions of a hostile, oversized world. This animated feature, unusually, combines live actors with its model figurines: the humans are also pixilated (animated frame by frame) which turns them into jerky, grotesque marionettes.

Tom Thumb started life, like its hero, in miniature: as a 10-minute short film for the BBC. It seems that righteous parents were extremely upset by its morbid vision, but the film went on to win festival accolades. Now it has grown into an over-achieving 60-minute feature. And even then, it still seems much too long. It has 'cult' stamped through it like a stick of seaside rock, but it's one of those notions that was, one suspects, more interesting in conception than in the execution: it's hard to imagine children, or anyone for that matter, being enchanted.

One problem is the strong sense of deja vu in the design of the piece, a stir- fry of Delicatessen and Eraserhead with a dash of Mad Max. The pixilation process slows up the film, so that what might be droll as a quick throw-away gag (the crucified Santa that adorns Tom's parents' home) becomes laboured and clumpy. And Tom is, frankly, a dull character: a blobby homunculus whose expressive repertoire is limited to a stream of gurgles and gasps. There's a constant lack of narrative clarity - is he an aberration of science (a prologue implies botched artificial insemination) or, as his appearance suggests, a foetus that has survived premature birth? The ending is a real puzzler.