- The Washington Times - Friday, March 31, 2006

A stranger to the films of Japanese director Mikio Naruse (1905-69) until the American Film Institute lent me a few titles on video, I’m persuaded that a definitive example of his work is “When a Woman Ascends the Stairs,” already shown free of charge at the National Gallery of Art but due for encores on April 15 and 17 at the AFI Silver Theatre (where admission is charged).

Released in Japan in 1960, “Woman Ascends” can be recommended as an exotic companion piece to Federico Fellini’s “Nights of Cabiria.” The former is set in tonier surroundings where prostitution nonetheless occurs.

The heroine, portrayed by Hideko Takamine, Mr. Naruse’s leading lady in 17 movies made between the early 1950s and middle 1960s, is a kind of senior hostess at a bar in Tokyo’s Ginza. A youngish widow named Keiko and nicknamed Mama, she is a demurely smoldering fixture, proud of her resistance to proposals of a carnal and compromising nature.

Her status advantages over Giulietta Masina’s Cabiria, a slum-district Roman streetwalker, prove shaky. Fate dishes out similar setbacks and disillusions to Mama. Potential consorts or rescuers repeatedly betray her trust and shatter her hopes. Nevertheless, our final glimpse of her suggests a resilient and heroically affectionate spirit. She’ll need it, given the traps built into her working milieu and the burden of family members who regard her as a meal ticket.

Miss Takamine, whose exquisite presence evidently was considered ideal for various kinds of ill melodramatic usage, carries a torch for an older man played by Masayuki Mori, best known as the disgraced husband in “Rashomon” and the woodcutter in “Ugetsu.” He seems to have played even more roles for Mr. Naruse than Miss Takamine, and they repeatedly cross paths as melancholy lovers.

A supremely popular match-up in Japan was “Floating Clouds,” scheduled for the AFI Silver today and Tuesday. Dating from 1955, it’s one of the most doggedly disconsolate romances ever contrived, a masochistic keepsake that just won’t quit. Miss Takamine pretty much sums up their misalliance in the tender promise, “I’ll cling to you until you throw me out.”

These lovers, who first meet in Japanese-occupied Indochina in World War II, are as bad for each other as Jennifer Jones and Gregory Peck in “Duel in the Sun.” Their misery is meant to acquire a similar obsessive fascination. Their last place of residence is a fog-bound and storm-tossed island where the sun rarely shines. Although this affair is far from irresistible, there are times when supremely crackpot romances can have an absurdly tonic effect.

Washington was one of several cities that Warner Bros. skipped when “test-releasing” a new Carroll Ballard movie, “Duma,” a year ago. The reviews were favorable in the chosen markets, which included New York and Los Angeles, but none of the engagements aroused immediate commercial confidence.

Two weeks ago, the movie surfaced at the Avalon, granted a one-shot booking as part of the 14th annual Environmental Film Festival. It was the right spot: Mr. Ballard’s superlative film version of “The Black Stallion” had its debut at the Avalon during the Christmas season of 1979. Because fond memories are seldom wasted on Washington film buffs, the “Duma” showing proved a surprise sellout, prompting Warner Classics, which handles the picture for its parent company, to authorize an honest-to-goodness commercial run, which began yesterday at the Avalon.

It would be gratifying to welcome “Duma,” which chronicles the trek of a South African boy and his pet cheetah, as an eye-opener comparable to “The Black Stallion” or “Never Cry Wolf.” Alas, it’s too ramshackle to rival their scenic and emotional appeal. A wayward scenario gets the better of often magnificent landscape photography and subjects a fable of child-animal bonding to recurrent disillusion.

The movie turns out to be a brief reunion vehicle for Campbell Scott and Hope Davis at the outset: a memorable estranged couple in Alan Rudolph’s “The Secret Lives of Dentists,” they’re cast as the parents of the juvenile hero in “Duma.” The boy, Xan, and his father recover a cub from the highway near their ranch; Xan is allowed to keep it on the understanding that the foundling will be returned to the wild when grown. It’s a pity the rest of the movie isn’t about a family journey to make good on this original intention. An improved update on “Born Free” is long overdue.

The plot of “Duma” plays fast and loose with family sentiment and then credibility. Xan and Duma become fugitives who must traverse huge expanses of desert and jungle to get wherever it is that growing cheetahs need to be. Boy and cheetah hook up with yet another fugitive, a semimercenary black African on a roundabout return to his native village. The continuity fragments in traces of so many other things, from Jack London and Mark Twain and Edgar Rice Burroughs to “The Incredible Journey” and “The Defiant Ones,” that the movie loses any fixed identity of its own.

As a consequence, “Duma” is problematical rather than satisfying. Still, the current engagement provides a rare opportunity to see it on a theater screen, and perhaps no theater in the country has happier Carroll Ballard associations. So don’t let me dissuade anyone with a burning curiosity to catch up with “Duma.” No harm will be done the industry at large if an underrated movie gets a decent shot at finding an appreciative audience.

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