FILM / The grass is always greener: Sheila Johnston on racial stigma in Rising Sun, wild pranks in True Romance and safety in The Secret Garden

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The Independent Culture
The thing about paranoia is, it's always sneakier than you imagine. Everyone has been talking about the racism of Rising Sun (18), and it was certainly the keynote mood of Michael Crichton's bestselling thriller. Its story, of two cops investigating the murder of a white woman in Los Angeles' oriental community, was driven by a fear of Japan's technological superiority, and of how the Yellow Peril was poised to buy up America.

One would expect this to filter through in any film version: over the last couple of years the citadels of Hollywood have been falling to the barbarians, who now own two major studios (though not the one which made Rising Sun: it belongs to the civilised Mr Murdoch). Los Angeles has been anxious that the new masters in town would regard movies as humble software-fodder - optional accessories to help sell all those Sony videos and TVs.

And there does, indeed, seem to be more than a spot of product placement going on in Rising Sun: the electronic hardware (of which we see lorryloads, since high-tech video wizardry is the nub of the narrative) is all brand-named Japanese. The post-modern, foreign-owned skyscrapers and research institutes gleam with money; an American media centre is so run-down that rows of buckets are set up to drink the drips from the ice-rink above.

But that's not the whole story. The director, Philip Kaufman, has made over the novel so thoroughly that Crichton quit the production at an early stage. Canny changes have been made in the race of several key characters to blur the ethnic / ethical divide. The white- American cop duo has become Scottish (Sean Connery) and black (Wesley Snipes). And Kaufman isn't exactly in the Hollywood mainstream. He's a long-standing orientalist (student thesis: Japanese-Americans internees in the second world war). His recent work has been in an arthouse vein (The Unbearable Lightness of Being; Henry and June), and Rising Sun, too, is studied, tortured, self-conscious.

There are staple genre elements: Connery and Snipes turn in an enjoyable variant on the old mismatched-cops number. But this is essentially a highbrow film trying to pass as a commercial thriller. It's too sophisticated for the crudities of, say, Black Rain. So confident is it of its political probity, it has re- named its female lead, a bright computer hacker who helps solve the case . . renamed her Jingo.

There is a big taboo behind Rising Sun, though, and it's not economic but erotic: the threat, and lure, of miscegenation. The film opens with a quarrel between the smooth-talking Japanese businessman Eddie and his white 'model' girlfriend - a quarrel that leads to her violent murder. Harvey Keitel, the 'bad cop' who voices all the script's racist invective, is hot on this detail. 'These guys are known, world-class perversion freaks,' he rails, contemplating rich, old Japanese draped with blonde bimbos. 'They're plundering our natural resources' (he's not talking about mineral deposits). His idea of protectionism would be to fit chastity belts on all Caucasian women under 25.

The S&M shenanigans in Rising Sun have a Japanese flavour: the victim, strangled in what looks like a sex game gone wrong, is laid out naked on a table 'like a piece of sushi'. The regular stuff is all- American - protesting his sexual conservatism, Eddie calls himself 'a straight meat and potatoes man'.

Jingo's stigma, and her allure, spring from her origins - she's black-Japanese. The story ends with another mixed-race union, which I won't reveal, except to note that it's not in the novel. How clever it was of the film-makers to displace the story's xenophobia, its fear of other- ness. After all, what does Joe Public care about a Japanese business takeover? But stirring up the gene pool - why, everyone has a view on that.

True Romance (18) takes nothing seriously at all; it fizzles with trashy, irresistible popcorn energy. The story is a shameless retread of that old couple-on-the-run favourite, with Christian Slater's nerdy film freak and Patricia Arquette's bottle-blonde call girl fleeing the Mob in a purple Caddy with a caseload of stolen cocaine.

The trump card of True Romance, the thing that transforms it into a cut well above the usual, is the script, by Hollywood hot dog Quentin Tarantino. To be sure, this is a prentice work - his first completed screenplay, it predates Reservoir Dogs by several years, and lacks the later film's strong, bleak moral vision. But Tarantino proves his mettle as a first-class screenwriter. His gift of creating memorable minor characters with a few brief brushstrokes attracted a top-drawer supporting class: Dennis Hopper, Christopher Walken, Gary Oldman, Brad Pitt, all of them in funny, unexpected roles.

He has the nerve to allow his wild, scabrous riffs to run for minutes on end, twisting and turning through obscure obsessional byways with a weird logic of their own. The Walken / Hopper confrontation, an instantly classic scene, ends with the exchange 'You're an eggplant]' 'You're a canteloupe]' - and it makes perfect sense at the time.

For daintier tastes, Agnieszka Holland's The Secret Garden (U) is a solid adaptation of the Edwardian classic about three neglected kids who transform a garden wilderness into a prelapsarian paradise, rediscovering life and love. It lacks the edge of her two last films (Europa, Europa and Olivier, Olivier) and, probably for that reason, has been a great success in America.

The film starts well, as the orphaned Mary Lennox is ushered into a Gothic manse by the mother of all intimidating housekeepers (Maggie Smith), but quickly turns bland and Disneyfied (armies of friendly baby animals, a magical Robin Redbreast) as the happy ending prematurely sets in. It is sentimental without having the nerve to throw caution to the devil and go all out for high kitsch.

(Photograph omitted)