Other new releases: Go west, young woman

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The Independent Culture
Maggie Greenwald's marvellously stylish and acidulous The Kill-Off was the best of the small wave of Jim Thompson adaptations which broke here about five years ago. Her belated follow-up, The Ballad of Little Jo (15), also forms part of a little trend - of westerns with female protagonists - and has many points of interest, but somehow lacks the earlier film's vicious, compulsive drive.

Suzy Amis plays Josephine, an East Coast society girl who is cast out by her family when she bears an illegitimate child. Leaving the baby with her sister, she goes West and becomes Jo, spending the rest of her life posing successfully as a man. Amis splendidly achieves the transformation from naive debutante to young, gruff, beardless man, and might have got an Oscar nomination if it were possible to persuade Academy members to lift their eyes away from the usual high-budget, high-profile numbers. There are fine supporting performances from Ian McKellen as a twisted, violent miner and from Bob Hopkins as the nice-but-dim sheep farmer who never quite figures out the mystery of his peculiar neighbour.

Greenwald creates a vivid, convincing picture of the Wild West which focuses not on gun-toting violence, but on the social chemistry of the frontier: the film teems with a rich ethnic mix of Russians, blacks, Scots, English and Chinese, and pays particular attention to the role of feisty pioneer women.

But, as the word 'ballad' suggests, the film is also a mite too didactic, seeming to plod its way self- consciously through a checklist of heroic minorities. And the fascinating story is defused by a deliberately episodic narrative structure and slow-poke pacing.

While males in drag often play their roles for laughs - Robin Williams or Dustin Hoffman struggling with high heels, falsies and all the other apparatus of femininity - this is deadly serious; dour even (understandably, since cross-dressing at that time was illegal). The film glides over the nuts and bolts of the imposture. And that, perhaps, is the other main problem - one craves for just the occasional moment of levity for, although Amis grabs you by the throat, her character is a fierce, humourless sonofabitch: you might sympathise with her, but she's not a whole lot of fun to be around.

The ICA continues its dogged disinterment of Asian gangster movies with a short season devoted to the Japanese director Suzuki Seijun. Suzuki (who, incidentally, will appear in person tonight to present his work) is hugely prolific - his filmography credits him with up to six films a year - and truly an acquired taste.

Made in 1966, Tokyo Drifter (no cert) uses a perfunctory storyline about a hood caught up in gang warfare as the vague pretext for a grab- bag of jokey pratfalls; lurid, outrageously unrealistic production design, all in matt primary colours, a moody, all-singing gangster hero (although the titular theme tune is seriously over-used); and a distinctly ironic take on the yakuza genre. This is really beyond cult cinema - it's hard to conceive of an audience for the bizarre and original mix of thriller, art-film and Avengers-style Sixties camp. But there is certainly nothing else like it in London.