Tony Takitani (U)<br/> U-Carmen...(12A)

Soft-boiled wonderland
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The Independent Culture

The new Japanese film Tony Takitani is a real delicacy - by which I mean it's delectable and it's delicate. It's based on a short story by Haruki Murakami, whose appeal has sometimes evaded me; at least, it did until I read this story, which in its cool, detached flatness comes across more like a bare-bones outline - or, indeed, like a not very visual film treatment - but is all the more poignant for it.

Murakami's slender tale is about a Japanese man saddled by his saxophonist father with an American name that seems to destine him to a lone-wolf existence; Tony grows up to be a talented draughtsman, and marries a woman whose one flaw is her excessive clothes-buying. Tony suggests she cut down her spending, with catastrophic results. Later, he tries to console himself with a ploy straight out of Vertigo, then thinks better of it, and then... Then nothing. It's a non-story, with a non-ending, but it resonates with curious power. There's nothing here but style, you might think, but in that seeming vacancy, the magic somehow resides.

Ichikawa's film is similarly all about style, and his execution dovetails perfectly with the original. A very close fit between adaptation and text can denote slavish film-making; here, however, Ichikawa sets out to do justice not only to Murakami's narrative but also to his tone. What he does is simply - and quite literally - tell the story, in a neat 75 minutes. A calm, uninflected voice-over runs through the film, but sometimes characters will suddenly take up the narration for a sentence or two, or even a broken phrase, as if momentarily channeling the author's voice; they voice their unspoken thoughts, in the third person, or narrate their own fates as if they were no more than self-aware puppets. The resulting sense of absolute detachment is accentuated by a device that's entirely Ichikawa's: the doubling of actors, so that Issey Ogata plays Tony and his father, while Rie Miyazawa is both Tony's wife Eiko and the woman hired to take her place, Hisako.

Ichikawa's palette is limited to muted greys and monochromes, with only occasional colours cutting through, such as the red and orange of Eiko's shopping bags. He favours symmetry and distance, often shooting scenes head-on at table-level, in a chic modern-interiors update of Ozu. The stylistic leitmotif is a tracking shot that glides smoothly across one tableau and into the next, as if Tony's life were presented as a kind of living slide show.

Everything is perfectly transparent, and perfectly enigmatic: we learn everything an omniscient narrator can possibly tell us about his characters, but we don't really know them. A chilly visual finish makes our attention hang all the more on exteriors, on the polished surfaces that the characters move through, and on their own sometimes highly styled appearances: when we meet Hisako, we're struck by how immaculately her look is modelled on Audrey Hepburn. What brings us closer to Tony himself is the casting of Issey Ogata (Hirohito in Aleksandr Sokurov's The Sun), whose careworn, baggy face brings its own tender hints of interiority.

The key to the film, I think, is that Tony is a draughtsman whose talent is precise rendering. In Ichikawa's delicate, respectful exegesis too, precision is everything: but while his adaptation is extremely faithful to Murakami's story (but for a brief additional coda), it amplifies the original and makes it into something new. Ryuichi Sakamoto's spare, lyrical piano score adds its own gnomic commentary to this gorgeous, highly wrought sliver of a film.

A rather brassier adaptation is U-Carmen eKhayelitsha, a townships Carmen, which won the Golden Bear in Berlin last year. Screen Carmens have been with us since at least 1907: what makes this one different is that it's pure Bizet, sung in traditional opera style but with Xhosa lyrics - and it no doubt takes very special vocal talents to be able to belt out the choruses while retaining all those Xhosa clicks.

The updating is naturalistic rather than parodic - Carmen and her friends still work in a cigarette factory, but in the shanty town of Khayelitsha. Don José is now a feckless cop Jongikhaya (Andile Tshoni), and Escamillo is Lulamile (Zweilungile "Zorro" Sidloyi), a local singer made good in the US: he's first heard and seen performing the Toreador's song on TV, which someone promptly turns off as if to say enough is enough.

The austere local settings are more prosaically filmed than in the recent Tsotsi, but once you've got over the cultural translation, what you're essentially seeing is a filmed production of Carmen, staged mainly in the open air, and whether you enjoy the film will increasingly depend on your appetite for two solid hours of Bizet.

Carmen is played with a beefy swagger by Pauline Malefane, who also co-wrote the script, translated in some juicy subtitles: here the township cops chant, "Check out the girls and rate their butts." Malefane's Carmen isn't the usual slinky mamacita, more like a black Brünnhilde in tracksuit bottoms; not to put too fine a point on it, when she sings, "If I love you, beware," she's warning her men to watch out for broken bones. She and the cast - from the Dimpho Di Kopane company - liven up an accomplished and boisterous show, but one that feels more like a prestige cultural achievement than a fully-blown film.

j.romney@independent.co.uk

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