Dir: Hiroshi Shimizu. Japan. 2002. 105 mins.

Hiroshi Shimizu is a Takashi Kitano protege, having worked as an assistant director on several of his films, including Hana-Bi, Kikujiro and Brother. At the same time he has also received backing for his first two features from Kitano's production company, Office Kitano. Shimizu's style in both 1998's Ikinai and this year's Chicken Heart echoes his master's, particularly his economical shotmaking and the quirky, deadpan humour that underscores his serious thematic concerns. But despite the obvious influences, Shimizu's touch is less mannered and, particularly in Chicken Run, funnier than that of his comedian boss. Screening in Critics Week at Cannes, Chicken Run may strike sterner critics as too lightweight: there are no Kitano-style romantic gangsters dying violent deaths or other markers of cinematic edge. But in telling its story of three losers working together to survive in recession-era Japan, it draws laughs with a puckish inventiveness and wit that will prove refreshing to international audiences jaded by Hollywood gross-out movies.

The film's ostensible focus, is Iwano (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi), a former professional boxer who has been reduced, at the age of 27, to being a nagurareya: a human punching bag who lets drunken businessmen take pot shots at him for cash. (A real nagurareya was Shimizu's inspiration for the character.) He is assisted by Maru (Suzuki Matsuo), a 36-year-old former teacher who serves as timekeeper, and Sada (Kiyoshiro Imawano), a 53-year-old drifter who collects money from customers. This trio lives in the same run-down rooming house and, after hours, drinks together at an outdoor stall run by a mysterious old man (Nobuyoshi Araki) who fixes electronic gadgets when he is not evading the police. (He has a neon "bar" sign but no bar license -- or license of any kind for that matter.)

All three have day jobs: Iwano washes graffiti off walls, Maru helps his elderly uncle mind his hat store while sitting in front of it blowing bubbles and Sada hands out promotional packets of tissue to passersby - or simply chucks them at the uncooperative. All three also want something better - they just don't know what it is. Iwano's businessman brother offers him a real job, but Iwano refuses a responsibility he can't escape. Maru tries to better his lot with lucky charms and colours - but with little success. Sada, the free spirit of the lot, dreams of repairing a broken-down boat and heading out to the open sea.

This story of how they find, or fail to find, new lives, unfolds at a leisurely pace. There are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments and a concluding moral: everything changes, but the spirit, goofy or otherwise, endures. A tenet of Buddhism, perhaps, but one that, in Shimizu's hands, translates into a border-crossing winner.

Prod cos: Bandai Visual, Tokyo FM, TV Tokyo, Office Kitano
Japan dist:
Office Kitano
Int'l sales: Office Kitano
Prod: Masayuki Mori, Takio Yoshida
Scr: Hiroshi Shimizu
Hiroshi Takase
Tomoo Sanjo
Prod des:
Takayuki Nitta
Kei'ichi Suzuki
Main cast:
Hiroyuki Ikeuchi, Kiyoshiro Imawano, Suzuki Matsuo, Nobuyoshi Araki, Ittoku Kishibe, Erika Mabuchi, Misayo Haruki, Toshinori Omi