Dir: Isao Yukisada. Japan. 123mins.

The winner of a slew of home awards, as well as taking the FIPRESCI prize at last year's Palm Spring Film Festival, Go was Japan's candidate for a best foreign film Oscar - a rare smart choice for an industry that usually gives its nod to seniority, not quality and buzz. A drama about a Korean teenager's quest for identity and love in a society that has relegated his people to second-class status, Go has both in abundance, as well as an energy and verve that lift it out of the earnest "problem film" class. Meanwhile, a charismatic performance from Yosuke Kubozuka in the lead has drawn female audiences in Japan who might have otherwise shied from what distributor Toei is promoting as a male-oriented action film. The film has taken $3.76m in Japan since it opened in late October. Overseas audiences will also find Go easy to like, although it fails to fit into the usual Asian art film slots.

Sugihara (Yosuke Kubozuka) is a zainichi (resident-in-Japan) Korean with a lion's-mane hairdo and a simmering rage to match. Although he and his Korean pals may look, talk and act like the Japanese around them, they are excluded from the mainstream - and are more likely to end up in a police line-up than behind a company president's desk. The film traces Sugihara's journey from his lock-step education at a Korean junior high school, dedicated to the greater glory of Kim Jong Il, to his entry into an ordinary Japanese high school. Here he has a fateful encounter with Sakurai (Ko Shibasaki), a flirty, flighty Japanese classmate who makes him believe, for the first time, that "Korean" is a category he can escape.

Instead of running the usual Korean-as-victim changes, Yukisada and scriptwriter Kankuro Kudo turn them inside out. Trained from boyhood by his former pro boxer father (Tsutomu Yamazaki), Sugihara knocks off a succession of would-be bullies at though they were so many arcade game villains. Indeed, he would seem to be a Japanese version of that familiar Hollywood figure - the Minority Superhero.

Only he is not. Dad, a testy eccentric, regularly knocks the stuffing out of him, while his delinquent pals constantly get him into idiotic trouble, such as out-racing an oncoming subway train with only the suicidally slimmest of head starts. Then Sakurai weaves her spell and reveals him as a gawky kid who can hardly talk to girls, let alone bed one. He is an exceptionally stubborn kid, however. Refusing to accept his foreordained loser's role, he tries again and again to break out - and nearly has his heart broken in the process.

Yukisada's take on this coming-of-age story may be cheeky and coolly stylish, but is never dully self-important. It also has a vitality that soothes its irritants, primarily a grating turn by Ko Shibasaki as Sugihara's love interest. Most of all it has Yosuke Kubozuka as Sugihara, exploding with a combination of brash attitude and boyish charm, raw toughness and comic flair. After a decade of looking for its next big male star, the Japanese film industry has finally found him.

Prod cos: Toei, Starmax, TV Tokyo, Toei Video, Tokyo FM
Japan dist:
Int'l sales: Toei
Prod: Masao Sato, Mitsuru Kurosawa
Kazuhito Amano, Tatsuya Kunimatsu, Hiroshi Deme
Scr: Kankuro Kudo
Cinematography: Katsumi Yanagishima
Prod des: Hiroshi Wada
Ed: Tsuyoshi Wada
Music: Meina Co (Yoko Kumitani and Hidehiko Urayama)
Main cast:
Yosuke Kubozuka, Ko Shibasaki, Shinobu Otake, Tsutomu Yamazaki