Director: Craig Lahiff
Writer: Louis Nowra
Also stars: Youki Kudoh (Midori), Kenji Isomura (Yukio), Robert Mammone (Mahood), Petru Gheorghiu (Boorjan), Anthony Phelan (Bishop), Matthew Dyktynski (Moffat).

I've read that viewers either love or hate this film. I admit, I was mystified by it at first, and perhaps I would have hated it except that I thought "hey, Crowe seems to be pretty careful about the roles he takes, there must be something here." On reviewing, the characters at least deserve some attention, and the performances of the lead actors are quite effective. Youki Kudoh is exceptionally watchable: she deftly transforms what could have been an embarassing stereotype of Japanese womanhood into a uniquely memorable performance.  Even before she "cuts loose", Midori's disatisfaction and guilty struggle are powerfully evident.

The character of Yukio, the jilted husband, is the personification of the Japan that Midori describes: "Many people in Japan, they have no true life. Everybody has [a] dream, but they [are] scared to make [the] dream come true because they [are] raised in a certain way." Both husband and wife are stiff and unatural even on this last day of their honeymoon, she with her doubts, he with his confused enthusiasm. But there is an essential humanity about Yukio's efforts to share his optimism.

Although he is oblivious to the impending rupture in his new marriage, he demonstrates a besotted affection for his new bride. He is the merry emperor of a half-silent nation of two. The transformation we witness as he exits the world of acceptable behavior is as amusingly unexpected as Midori's evolution into a chatty and sexually aggressive femme fatale.

heaven33.jpg (33579 bytes)Lahiff adds a twist to sterotypical light and dark contrast. Where our unrepentant villains, the inept but very angry gangsters, lurk in the darkness of night and closed rooms, the protagonists take flight in bright daylight. Even their romantic interlude at the B & S dance is only in artificial darkness: they burst into the bright of day at the end. But the bright light they move through is not a lush or comforting clarity: it is a stark, parched landscape, victim of a ten year drought. There is no soothing greenery, even the sea is too bright, though it is rumored to "make everything better." The film does not have resting points, at every turn there is some kind of disruption. Sexual climax translates into bondage, the stranger who tells Midori she's beautiful is a blind man, the recipient of charity and pity is an aggravating and even belligerant pest. The avenging angel was once a love-sick groom and obedient company man.

All around, the story is riddled with surprises and inconsistencies, but tracing them can be amusing if you let it.


Friday, January 23, 1998
Much to Crowe about

Australia's Heaven's Burning is a Pulp Fiction with heart

By LOUIS B. HOBSON -- Express Writer
There's not the slightest question that the Australian road movie Heaven's Burning is a homage to the films of Quentin Tarantino.  Colin (Russell Crowe) and Midori (Youki Kudoh) are two desperate strangers who are thrown together by fate.

heaven30.jpg (32663 bytes)Midori is a young Japanese bride who abandons her husband on the last night of their Australian honeymoon.  Colin needs some fast cash so he agrees to be the get-away driver on a bank heist for a trio of Afghani thugs. The heist goes terribly wrong. One of the thugs is killed in the bank. The other two take Midori hostage and are only prevented from executing her when Colin kills one of them instead. Suddenly Colin and Midori are on the lam, with police, the remaining thug and his father and Midori's husband in hot pursuit.

Heaven's Burning, which opens today at the Garneau Theatre, is Natural Born Killers with restraint and Pulp Fiction with heart.  It's crazy, wild, eccentric and violent but, unlike Tarantino's films, it is also believable and that's what makes it scarier and more appealing.

Screenwriter Louis Nowra is an Australian playwright, novelist and screenwriter.
He knows how to flesh out characters and to give them realistic dialogue. It's nowhere near the glib and showy dialogue that Tarantino routinely serves up but it rings true. This is how real people think and speak.  There are distant echoes of such classic crime-spree road movies as Bonnie and Clyde and Badlands in Nowra's script and Craig Lahiff's direction, but it's also clear they want the Tarantino comparison. They provide a blaring music track to heighten the intended emotional responses and they even have Crowe look like a slimmer John Travolta from Pulp Fiction.  

That's where the comparison ends. Crowe is an actor of complexity and depth.
There's no denying the dangerous aura to his masculinity, but there is also a vulnerability that few American actors either have or are willing to show.

You are always aware Crowe can and will kill to protect himself or those he loves, but it's also clear he can be killed. His bravura is not invincible.  Kudoh's fragility and alluring femininity are just as deceptive. She is no retiring damsel in distress. The relationship that builds between Crowe and Kudoh is winsome, making it a striking contrast to the violence that invades and pervades their lives.

Heaven's Burning is a road-revenge thriller that explodes with fury and keeps delivering surprises until the final frame.

Friday, January 23, 1998
Heaven's Burning fine B-movie romp

Toronto Sun

Heaven's Burning is an Australian crime thriller that once again (and again, and again) invokes the Bonnie & Clyde motif, as if we're not already sick of it.

heaven03.jpg (29627 bytes)Even the movie's star, Russell Crowe, has spoken out against his own movie because it turned out to be less of a political satire and more of a thriller than he had anticipated when he read the original script and shot the movie.

He's right, of course. What is on screen now is a sensationalistic romp that trades on tawdry romance, senseless crime and wanton death. The wacky, stylized film has plenty of satirical tone but very little satirical content, except for an out-of-context
diatribe about 'foreigners' screwing up Australian culture, whatever that's supposed to be.

All that said, Heaven's Burning is still a hell of a B-movie romp thanks to the charismatic Crowe, best known now as one of the American cops in the Oscar-bound L.A. Confidential. If you want to see how good and bloody determined an actor Crowe is, watch him making the most of the least in Heaven's Burning.

With his homegrown accent back in his mouth, with his sparkling eyes looking bewildered, Crowe plays an aimless drifter. In a weak moment, he is persuaded by Afghani-Australian friends to help out in a Sydney bank robbery. I said Crowe was good. I didn't say he was a good guy here.

Meanwhile, we've already met an unhappy yet flaky Japanese bride (Youki Kudoh, the tourist who wanders through Memphis in Mystery Train). She fakes her own kidnapping during her honeymoon in Sydney. She happens to be in the bank and ends up really being kidnapped by the crooks.

One unfortunate thing leads to another crazy thing, people die and Crowe and Kudoh end up together. They hit the road, the usual chase is on and they try to outrun the other crooks, the police and the bride's now psychotic husband. The trick is trying to
figure out who's going to die violently, how and when.

Director Craig Lahiff, working from Louis Nowra's script, tries (and ultimately fails) to get us to see everything through two cultural points of view that work in opposition: That of the cynical Australian man who awakens to the fresh energy of his traveling
companion and that of the naive Japanese woman who is simultaneously rejecting her own society.

Lahiff needs a more delicate manner and a more sophisticated layering of images to pull something like that off. Especially in a movie that features bloodbaths in the Outback.
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Thanks to the Crowe Slide Shows site for the screen captures!

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