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SCREENING ROOM

Two Japanese Masterpieces Explore Underworld of Yore

June 24, 1996|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Among the films screening in the American Cinematheque at Raleigh Studios' continuing Hideo Gosha retrospective are "Hunter in the Dark" (1979) and "Onimasa" (1982). The first, which screens Friday at 9 p.m., is a masterpiece of the classic Japanese period film, a tale of the underworld that's more Shakespearean tragedy than gangster picture. Tatsuya Nakadai, the most cerebral of the great Japanese stars, plays a quizzical, ironic gang leader who has just consolidated his position as top boss of the underworld in 1784 Edo, a time of political corruption in which Nakadai and his men work as killers for hire. The film's pivotal figure is Nakadai's rugged, one-eyed right-hand man (Yoshi Harada), whose amnesia contains the seeds of tragedy. Nakadai's Boss Gomyo is no Al Capone but a reflective man with a code of honor for whom gratitude and responsibility are all-important.

"Onimasa" (Saturday at 9 p.m.) is a great gangster epic, possessing tragic dimension as well as scope and passion and spanning the years 1918-1940. It illuminates its special world as richly and captivatingly as "The Godfather" did its shadowy realm. Alternately raucous and elegiac, outrageously cruel and comical, it is exceptionally robust and satisfying. Nakadai again stars, as the underworld boss of a seaport city, as guilty of the sin of hubris as a ruler in Greek tragedy.

Information: (213) 466-FILM.

*

Harsh Beauty: The Human Rights Watch International Film Festival begins Saturday at 9 p.m. at the Museum of Tolerance, 8786 W. Pico Blvd., with Jo Andres' 26-minute "Black Kites," inspired by the journals visual artist Alma Hajric kept while hiding with others in a theater basement during the 1992 siege of Sarajevo. Andres forcefully conveys the impact of that experience and its meaning in dark, surreal images. Steve Buscemi, who appears in the film, also produced it.

"Black Kites" is an apt curtain raiser for Ilan Ziv's 69-minute "Yellow Wasps: Anatomy of a War Crime," a devastating documentary depicting the "ethnic cleansing" carried out by a Serbian paramilitary group that crossed the Drina River in the spring of 1992. It unleashed a reign of terror, torture and death that succeeded in removing the Muslims--66% of the population--from the attractive city of Zvornik. What's more, in a mockery of justice, these self-named "Yellow Wasps" get away with it.

Sunday the festival presents Kwang-Su Park's 1995 "A Single Spark" (at 7 p.m.) and his 1994 "To the Starry Island" (at 8:55 p.m.). The first, which screened last month in the Asian Pacific Film & Video Festival, is as beautiful as it is bleak, an account of a law school graduate (Sung-Keun Moon) researching a book on a brave youth (Kyuong-In Hong) who, from 1965 to his death by self-immolation in 1970, agitated for better working conditions for Seoul's virtually enslaved garment workers. Since the writer, already known as an anti-government activist himself, is beginning his work in 1975, just as President Chung-Hee Park has established a military dictatorship, he and his factory worker girlfriend are in constant danger. "A Single Spark" is grueling but also impassioned and greatly accomplished.

"To the Starry Island" seems indubitably a masterpiece, a beautifully wrought tale of betrayal and reconciliation. A middle-aged businessman and his lifelong friend, a poet, return to their native island to bury the businessman's father, only to be confronted with the islanders' fierce opposition. Flashbacks catch us up in a harsh but healthy and largely happy existence destroyed by the Korean War--and reveal why the man's burial is so vehemently opposed four decades after his departure.

Information: (310) 553-9036, Ext. 320.

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