Avalon (Japan 2001)

Rating: ***
Review Date: 10/6/01
Director: Mamoru Oshii
Music: Kenji Kawai
Cast: Malgorzata Foremniak

Ooh, my head hurts. Never leave it to Mamoru Oshii to give you anything plain and simple. In a near future dystopian world, there's an illegal virtual reality war game known as "Avalon." Players who are good enough can actually make a living playing the game, but there are risks as well. Some players can suffer permanent damage from playing the game, as their soul and/or consciousness gets trapped in the game and their body remains in a catatonic state in the real world. One of the top players of Avalon is a hard and cold young woman named Ash (pretty Malgorzata Foremniak). In her mundane and unfulfilling life, the only thing she truly cares for is her pet basset hound (a classic Oshii element). Indeed, her dog lives better than she does. When she learns about a secret level in Avalon where the "unreturned" players are rumored to be trapped, she devotes herself to finding it and rescuing a former partner of hers. But a part of her also wants to experience the thrill of discovery in unlocking a secret part of the game, and much like Neo in "The Matrix" (1999), she is driven by the need to know. And that's when things get really strange. The mind-bending climax of the film becomes a lyrical and dreamlike journey that challenges the nature of reality, and leaves us with more questions than answers.

It's extremely difficult to figure out what Oshii is trying to say with this film. Is it a symbolically heavy, philosophical head trip, or is it meant to be as confused and disconnected from reality as Ash is? I just found it frustrating, and typical of Oshii's films, the pacing is very slow. However, it is visually delightful. I have never seen a film that looks like "Avalon." The lighting is harsh and colors are desaturated to the point of almost being black and white, with just a slight hint of color. Kenji Kawai's music score is rich and melancholic, and very reminiscent of "Ghost In The Shell" (1995). Oddly enough, the film was shot in Poland with a Polish cast and crew. Is that symbolic of anything? Malgorzata Foremniak does a stellar job with the character of Ash. Her blank stare, unexpressive face, and complete lack of emotions make you wonder if she's even human. Only when she's with her dog do you see any warmth and humanity in her character. The action is all too sparse, but it's a sheer joy to see Ash handling a gun. She's awesome when she's in combat mode, and the film leaves you begging for more. I really wanted this film to be more action oriented, but as it stands, it's a pretty good sci-fi flick for the cerebral art film crowd.