Someone I knew in college said that the success of Haruki Murakami’s fiction lay in the fact that everyone in his stories got laid. Someone else said the only Japanese to have love and sex on a regular basis were Murakami’s characters. As for my friend Greg, he came to Japan after reading his fill of Murakami and was aghast to find so many love hotel rooms vacant on weeknights. His take on the subject: “I thought everyone here did it 24-7!” The sad truth is that the Japanese aren’t nearly as hot and sensual as Murakami likes to depict: Translated, his stories have given us a global rep we can’t quite live up to. And now that foreign film directors are starting to take a crack at adapting Murakami (a territory that normal, god-fearing Japanese directors have never dared tread), that reputation will probably take on a hardened patina not easily scraped off. (Oh no. I foresee hordes of Greg clones landing in Narita, taking one disappointed look around and demanding their money back.)
How can we complain then, that “All God’s Children Can Dance” — one of the most provocative of Murakami’s short stories and picked up on this occasion by first-time feature director Robert Logevall — is set in Koreatown, L.A. instead of Tokyo? Logevall made the smart move of scrapping plans to stick to the original (first penned by Murakami in 2001), re-inventing a whole new vessel and transferring the essence into it, with the tender care of an expert chef. The result is a moody, sometimes unbearably romantic succession of carefully staged vignettes — shot in flawless black and beige tones by cinematographer Giorgio Scali. The soundtrack is Californian-hipster, compiled by Santa Cruz-based STS9 and emerging sound designer Drazen Bosnjak. The cast is an intriguing mix of American artists like Joan Chen (“Lust, Caution”), Sonia Kinski (Nastassja’s daughter) and NYU screenwriting teacher Jason Lew playing the protagonist. Japanese it ain’t and this mix-and-match set-up may seem downright weird to the audience here. Yet the aftertaste of the movie has a lot in common with the original story — the same titillating desire that has no real grounding and no chance of satisfaction, leaving the viewer/reader suspended in a cocoon of head-scratching “Huh?” That unexplainable itchiness, as it were, is something that Logevall caught onto and wastes no time capturing — the pivotal point of “All God’s Children Can Dance” is that sex only triggers the desire for more sex while the heart and brain are always searching for something else. That certainly seems to be the equation for Kengo (Lew), an Asian American guy who is, for better or worse, defined by the “incredible” size of a certain organ. His gorgeous girlfriend Sandra (Kinski) is always demanding to see him, which means only one thing, and a lot of it. His own mother (Chen) adores her son and insists that he is “the son of God,” also making it a habit to slip into Kengo’s bed clad in nothing more than a chemise and some very nice make-up. Kengo is okay with both these women — but their stifling love and unconditional approval makes it hard for him to get in touch with what he wants. It’s so much easier to stay immersed in the marshlands of sexual desire and gratification, slowly suffocating. Lew’s performance here is interesting — with practically no prior experience in front of the camera, he displays the nonchalant, almost blase assurance of a man whose power over women is irrefutable.
At first glance, Kengo’s curiously Latino features offset by a thick moustache are a bit much, but as the story moves forward you begin to sense his allure. He makes no fuss, doesn’t argue or talk back — he just takes women to bed where they drown in pleasure. Being a Murakami story however, “All God’s Children Can Dance” is styled as a journey of identity-searching, while sexual escapades are put on the back burner. Kengo has a private mission — to seek out the father he never knew — but somehow, the segment isn’t as compelling as in Murakami’s short story. In bed, Kengo is unreachable and mysterious. Out of it, he almost descends into banality since, after all, isn’t everyone in L.A. engaged in soul- searching and complaining about their parents? In Tokyo, people rarely have time for gratuitous sex and self-analysis (the two occuring at the same time is an unheard of luxury) and this accounted for much of the attraction of the short story. A Japanese audience may feel a tiny bit betrayed: Deprived of the home-grown fantasy, we’re left with the feeling that once again, these things only happen in Hollywood.