OTHER NEW RELEASES:The cook, the thieves, some punks and a stiff

Sheila Johnston
Thursday 12 January 1995 00:02
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If eating, as Ang Lee delicately hints in Eat Drink Man Woman, is the publicly acceptable substitute for sex, what would be the erotic equivalent of Stinky Tofu? There is a fair bit of food in the film, from Joy Luck Dragon Phoenix to Wendyburgers - fortunately for the viewer's hunger pangs, not all the grub on display is high-gourmet fare. But sex, or even platonic love, are not, or not explicitly, on the menu.

The main character is a retired master-chef, Mr Chu, who, driven by widowhood deep into his shell, has become unable to express love for his three grown-up daughters. Instead he cooks them preposterously lavish and complex banquets, at which the women, equally withdrawn in their own worlds pick disconsolately.

There are faint echoes of the Japanese master-director Yasujiro Ozu, but Ang Lee's vision is more broadly comic and a deal more upbeat. The final scene, between father and one of the daughters would, in Ozu's hands, be steeped in melancholy. Here it's full of guarded optimism for coming adventures.

And Ang Lee has none of Ozu's elegantly stylised minimalism. Plainly shot, his film makes its points through ironic juxtaposition. Each time we see Mr Chu politely conversing with the appalling divorcee everyone expects him to marry, the next scene findshim suffering a painful massage.

His story exposition, sneakily withholding information from the audience, is clever too: it tells us we should never prejudge his characters. In his last film, The Wedding Banquet, a sham marriage is contracted to please a gay man's ultra-traditional parents but, very late in the film, we learn that the man the charade was meant to deceive, had seen through it from the word go.

In Eat Drink, the mysterious "announcements" which accompany every meal have been subtly suggested, but still arrive with surprising swiftness - above all the final one, which requires everybody to reassess completely one of the central characters. Just as we think we have the story pat, the director smilingly reveals himself a couple of steps ahead of the game.

Food and sex: the basic human drives. The film poses the question, "is that all there is?" and answers "probably, yes" - those who embrace them will prosper; those who chase after religion or professional success will miss the best of life. A feel-good movie, to be sure - but is that a stigma when so many young film-makers seem hell-bent on making us feel bad?

Roger Avary's Killing Zoe could be a case in point. School of Tarantino (who executive-produced), it adopts the Reservoir Dogs format of the botched bank heist, with the minor twist of being set in Paris. Eric Stoltz plays a safecracker recruited by an old buddy, the supremely sleazy Jean-Hughes Anglade, and his gang of louche sidekicks. Unfortunately they're all junkies with no particular plan of action: to assure the full success of the enterprise, they get out of their heads on heroin the night before. A further complication is Zoe (Julie Delpy), with whom Stoltz has become involved and who turns out to work at the bank. Avary, who also wrote the script, doesn't have Tarantino's ear for wild dialogue (much of the film is in French anyway), but he does have something of QT's manic energy and macabre humour. At root, though, it's a standard genre exercise posing as a portrait of the "lost generation".

Killing Zoe is a sunny little flick compared to Totally F***ed Up, Gregg Araki's follow-up to The Living End and prefaced with the legend "another homo movie in 15 celluloid fragments". Eight junior Generation-Xers, self-absorbed as only Los Angelinos can be, mope around reflecting on queer-bashing, suicide, Aids. Nihilism? They've got it to burn. Shot mainly on video and partly inspired, we learn, by a "turkey baster insemination party", it's a rambling, perfunctorily shot affair: hard to i magine thatits audience might stretch to double figures.

Total brain death is the future we predict for those who hazard two hours with Nostradamus. It should have been good: he's an interesting figure and the 16th century is always good for poisonings, beheadings and witch hunts. We had brief hopes of a Pythonesque farce: the Spanish Inquisition does, after all, keep popping up, and the opening credits include the piquant promise: "Rutger Hauer as the mystic monk." No such luck: it's crushingly dull. Nostradamus mixes medicines, occasionally peers into a pail of water to watch newsreel footage of Hitler and JFK and gets laid a lot. The Eurocast includes Michael Gough, F Murray Abraham and the French actor Tcheky Karyo in the title role.

All films open tomorrow

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