Dance Subaru!

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 26 March, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 26 March, 2009, 12:00am

Starring: Meisa Kuroki, Kaori Momoi, Ara, Miku Sano, Ken Maeda

Director: Lee Chi-ngai

Category: IIA (Japanese)

Ballet has rarely been made so worthy an object of teen aspiration as in this adaptation of Masahito Soda's manga about budding Japanese dancers.

Scripted by director Lee Chi-ngai and shot on location in Tokyo and Shanghai, it breathes life into the original's two-dimensional depictions and, while not achieving genuine three dimensionality, conjures up enough substance to hold a viewer's attention for nearly two hours.

Dance Subaru! not only marks a welcome return to cinema for Lee, who delivered such notable 1990s features as Alan and Eric: Between Hello and Goodbye (1990) and Tom, Dick and Hairy (1993), but it is in many ways his most complete work to date. It's no small task getting an audience to accept the comic book world that is home to Subaru Miyamoto (Meisa Kuroki, right). But in Lee's hands, one is willing to suspend disbelief and enter into the young woman's vacuum-like universe where life is stripped down to plot essentials with no room for 'extraneous' matters that might intrude on Subaru's reality.

That domain revolves around ballet, and Lee manages to transform Subaru's rarefied realm into a persuasive tale. In the movie's opening 20 minutes, we experience her childhood motivation, based on familial tragedy, to lose herself in dance. The bulk of the narrative takes place when she is 17 and soon to graduate from high school. Rivalry with best friend Mana (Miku Sano) and friendship with a major rival, Korean-American ballerina Liz Park (Ara), become vehicles for displaying Subaru's gumption in the face of adversity.

Unusual for a youth-oriented feature, the score owes more to classics (most memorably Swan Lake and Bolero) than pop, with the exception of a breakdance/hip hop sequence that helps Subaru come into contact with her inner rhythm. Though various side characters continually comment on the leading ladies' skill, that the movie never approaches The Red Shoes-like terpsichorean greatness is due to our never seeing this quality on screen.

The dance numbers are shot with so many close-ups and cut-aways it's hard not to conclude the teenage stars aren't quite up to this facet of their roles, although their acting is convincing enough to almost make you overlook the matter.

It is a tribute to Lee's skill that he takes such wispy material and makes it compelling. He is especially successful in creating the milieu of the sumptuous but seedy Palais Garnier, a sanitised strip club where Subaru serves a surprisingly tender apprenticeship under the tutelage of faded ballerina Isuzu (wonderfully portrayed by award-winning actress-singer Kaori Momoi).

She and Ken Maeda, playing a ballerina-in-drag and Isuzu's assistant, inject much-needed grit into Subaru's sterile existence. When the movie does truly dance, Subaru has them in part to thank.

Dance Subaru! opens today