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PAINTING A STRANGE WORLD

‘Ahiru to Kamo no Coin Locker’

Taking a walk on the weird side

by Mark Schilling

Many directors keep returning to the same themes and motifs again and again. Alfred Hitchcock liked to torture ice queens (Grace Kelly, Kim Novak, Tippi Hedren), while Luis Bunuel, the master surrealist, subverted everyday reality with bizarre and disturbing imagery, like a sleeper returning to a familiar dream (or nightmare).

Scriptwriter-turned-director Yoshihiro Nakamura likes plots where the facade of ordinary reality begins to crack — or dissolve altogether, with the heroes forced to deal with the often unpleasant consequences.

The obnoxious late-night DJ of Nakamura’s horror film “Booth” (2005) is taking calls from listeners when the voice of his dead lover comes over the wires, calling him a liar. The 14-year-old heroine of the same director’s “Route 225″ (2006) and her pudgy kid brother are walking home from the park when they find themselves not only lost in their own neighborhood, but trapped in another dimension.

The story of his latest film, the oddly but aptly titled “Ahiru to Kamo no Coin Locker (The Coin Locker of the Duck and Drake),” fits his things-are-not-what-they-seem pattern, but with a twist: The hero — and the audience — do not find out how strange the film’s world truly is until well into the third act, but the clues are there to see from the beginning. In other words, I have to be careful in describing the story for fear of giving the game away.

It’s clever, this story, in a way familiar from such scriptwriter favorites as Christopher Nolan’s “Memento” and David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive” — films that subvert conventional narrative expectations at every turn, with an internal logic (or in Lynch’s case, illogic) that spells confusion to the more literal-minded, but perfection to fans.

At the same time, Nakamura’s use of a Bunuelian device — two actors in the same role — is less successful, since he is less clear about his rationale (beyond a desire to mess with the audience’s mind) than the more artful Bunuel, who used double casting to brilliantly illustrate his heroine’s duality (among much else) in “That Obscure Object of Desire.” To use a favorite scriptwriter phrase, Nakamura takes the audience out of the picture. Devotees of trick plots may not mind, while those who prefer to dance with the one that brought them may feel jilted — or simply baffled.

Nakamura, who also wrote the script from an eponymous novel written by Kotari Isaka, is trying to, not just mess with his audience’s mind, but inject the sort of Buddhistic message that would never have occurred to the atheistic Bunuel: People have the power to change — in the next life if not this one.

The story unfolds over the course of six action-packed days, with flashbacks. On the first Shiina (Gaku Hamada), a freshmen at a university in Sendai, moves into a new apartment. A Bob Dylan fan, he is singing “Blowin’ in the Wind” to himself when he is greeted by his new neighbor, Kawasaki (Eita). Being imposingly tall and having an air of confidence, Kawasaki is the polar opposite of the short, nervous, but somehow determined Shiina, but he announces himself as another Dylan fan. Dylan’s singing, Kawasaki proclaims, is like “the voice of God.”

Soon Kawasaki is taking Shiina into not only his apartment, but his confidence. He tells his new friend he wants to steal a Kojien dictionary for another neighbor — an exchange student from Bhutan — and needs Shiina’s help. He also gives Shiina a warning that sounds as loopy as his plan: Beware the owner of a nearby pet shop, the sexy but dangerous Reiko (Nene Otsuka).

If Shiina were smart, he would run in the opposite direction, but instead he finds himself drawn irresistibly into Kawasaki’s orbit. The next day, Kawasaki confesses to Shiina that he is the former lover of Kotomi (Megumi Seki), a girl who once worked at Reiko’s shop, but threw him over for the Bhutanese. So what is his motive for helping the guy? While puzzling this over, Shiina agrees to help Kawasaki with his seemingly absurd robbery, standing guard outside a bookshop’s back door with a replica pistol.

Here is where I should stop, though I should add that Reiko later gives Shiina a similar warning about Kawasaki. How do ahiru (duck) and kamo (drake) come into it? The former is the domestic variety of quacker, the latter, the wild. Similar but different, something like a character in the film who starts as one thing, but becomes another. The coin locker of the title is in the film too, at the end, with a connection to the Dylan song at the beginning.

As this detail indicates, Nakamura has thought of every way, plot- and theme-wise, to make “Ahiru to Kamo no Coin Locker” an intriguing puzzler, but he shot and cut it in a flatly realistic style more suitable for comedy — I was half expecting laughs, not existential mysteries.

Eita plays Kawasaki with a combination of outward openness but palpable weirdness that puts Gaku Hamada’s Shiina rightly on edge, as well as giving the audience a foretaste of what is to come. Ryuhei Matsuda does his usual cool, tough, not-of this-world thing, which happens to be exactly right for his character, who is . . .

The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind.