Dir: Setsurou Wakamatsu. Japan. 129 mins.
Prod cos: Destiny, INB Production. Backers: Nippon Herald, Fuji TV, Toho, NTV, Dentsu, INB, Destiny. Dist: Toho, Nippon Herald, tel (813) 3213-6821. Prod: Shohei Kotani. Scr: Yuichi Shimpo. DoP: Hideo Yamamoto. Prod Des: Fumio Ogawa. SFX: Hajime Matsumoto. Music: Osamu Onodera. Main cast: Yuji Oda, Nanako Matsushima, Koichi Sato, Ken Ishiguro.
Whiteout is a Japanese thriller that locks eyeballs with the Hollywood giants of the genre and dares them to blink. Commercially, this film about a terrorist group’s winter-time takeover of the country’s largest dam seems to be winning its challenge: it grossed over $3m in its opening week, and distributor Toho expects the film to gross nearly $55m in total, putting Whiteout firmly in the black.
The film tries to, not pile on the stunts and effects a la John Woo, but crank up the tension a la Jackie Kang, the director of the 1999 Korean megahit Shiri. But whereas Shiri was rooted in the political and cultural realities of the Korean peninsula, Whiteout is a macho fantasy that, with its one-man rescue squad in local superstar Yuji Oda, rings all-too familiar changes.
Be that as it may, the villains are definitively cool, as though they bought their black bad-guy duds at Jean-Paul Gaultier. Also, first-time director Setsurou Wakamatsu stages his action scenes crisply and paces his story briskly, for the first hour at least.
In the second, though, the various plot contrivances, including the farfetched explanation of why the terrorists are there in the first place, begin to slow the film, if not bury it. The ending, while clever, is bit of a let down after all that waiting for the dam to blow.
Nonetheless, Whiteout could well create an avalanche at the Asian box office. In other territories, the forecast is cloudier, but Whiteout may yet prove to the West that there is more to big-budget action from Japan than Godzilla - and that there are more ways to trash its national landmarks than a swift kick from a big, scaly foot.