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3 films offer visions of 21st century

H ONOLULU - If there is a nation that seems to have one foot already planted in the 21st century, that nation is Japan, where every new high-tech gadget and virtual reality world seems to get its first consumer tryout. At the 16th Hawaii International Film Festival, which specializes in new films from the Pacific Rim, three movies danced along the cutting edge of new technology and emerging art forms:

"Haru," from Japan, is the first feature about an online romance, conducted by e-mail. Messages scroll down the screen as they're typed back and forth by a frustrated executive in Tokyo and a young woman in a small town, who is trying to get over the death of her sweetheart.

"Memories," also from Japan, is an extraordinary new animated film developed by Katsuhiro Otomo, acknowledged master of what the Japanese call "anime." It tells three stories of human lives overwhelmed by technology.

"Synthetic Pleasures," a documentary by the Korean-American Iara Lee, is a free-form look at many forms of virtual reality, from vast indoor Japanese "beaches" and "ski hills" to computer-generated 3-D games, artificial intelligence, "body sculpture" and cybersex. ("Synthetic Pleasures" opened last week at the Music Box, 3733 N. Southport, where it is playing through today.)

All three of these films foresee a new century in which men will live in closer symbiosis than ever before with their machines, especially machines that can think (or seem to think) and machines that create artificial worlds that seem real to their human inhabitants. This brave new cyberworld is not a cheerful one, in the view of the two Japanese films, although Lee is more optimistic, and her documentary features testimony from pioneers of the electronic frontier.

"Haru," the film about an online romance, is paradoxically the most old-fashioned and humanistic of the three. It begins in an online "Cinema Forum," where two participants named "Haru" and "Hoshi" meet and begin to chat about the movies.

Soon they are chatting with each other, through private e-mail, and gradually they reveal their true identities (and sexes - for there has been some deception). One is a Tokyo executive, mired in frustration, whose job is to promote soup to supermarkets. The other is a young woman who hops from job to job, trying to stay one step ahead of an annoying suitor.

The online chats scroll down the screen, and alternate with real-life footage that is actually colder and more impersonal: Both characters are often seen in fluorescent-lit, air-conditioned environments, photographed through glass walls; their real lives don't offer the same opportunities to confide and unwind that they find online.

"Memories" tells three futuristic stories, coordinated by Otomo, who made the landmark anime fantasy "Akira." In one, explorers in an outer-space Sargasso Sea find themselves seduced by a virtual reality world generated on an abandoned space station. In the second, a laboratory worker takes what he thinks is cold medication and becomes a deadly source of poisons meant for chemical warfare.

The third, directed by Otomo himself, has the power and the imagination of a futuristic "Animal Farm." It is seen through the eyes of a young boy who lives in a fortress city, every building and turret bristling with giant cannons. His father works on a team that operates the largest of the cannons, and we follow through a workday dedicated to the care and feeding of the vast weapon. It gradually becomes clear that the entire society is based on paranoia, on rounds fired at an enemy that has long since ceased to exist.

"Synthetic Pleasures," a once-over-lightly kind of film, has been made by traveling around real and cyberworlds, looking at the lifestyles of people caught up on new electronic realities. One of its subjects is a man who travels America on a recumbent bicycle, the solar panels behind him powering the Macintosh computer mounted between his handlebars. "I live on the Net," he explains.

We also visit VR amusement parks, meet body piercers and tattooists who are trying to turn their bodies into works of art, talk to artificial intelligence gurus, and learn about online sex. Director Lee's definition of virtual reality is broad enough to encompass drive-through wedding chapels in Las Vegas, as well as the amazing buildings in Japan that contain artificial golf courses or ocean beaches. Most of the visions in these three films will not cheer ordinary people who cling to everyday values. Although the enthusiasts in "Synthetic Pleasures" hail the dawn of a new age of man and computer, their activities still seem more synthetic than pleasurable.

But "Haru" takes a different approach altogether. Its two characters find intimacy, a little at a time, through the revelations they make online.

Midway through the film there is a striking scene. The man must take a bullet train past the district where the woman lives. They plan to "see" each other. She will stand by her car in a field, and he will stand in a doorway of the train. They pass quickly, but they do see each other, and both of them videotape the "meeting." The irony is that neither can see the other's face, because it has a video camera in front of it!

Later, when they finally do meet, there is an extraordinary shot in which they stand face to face, and look, simply look, at each other.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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