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FilmsAsia: Asian film reviews
Soh Yun-Huei
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Reviewed by Soh Yun-Huei

Director: Oshii Mamoru
Writing Credits: Ito Kazunori
Cast: Malgorzata Foremniak, Wladyslaw Kawalski, Jerzy Gudejko
Genre: Science Fiction
Country: Hong Kong, Poland
Language: Polish
Year Released: 2001
Runtime: 106 min
Rating: * * ½ (out of four stars)

Avalon is directed by Mamoru Oshii, who also helmed anime classics like Ghost In The Shell, Patlabor, and also wrote the screenplay for the recent Jin Roh. However, Avalon is not a cartoon – in fact, it’s a live-action movie, although it does incorporate a fair bit of visual effects. Furthermore, contrary to what most people would expect, this is not a true Japanese movie – Avalon is a Polish film, and it is also filmed entirely on location in Poland. There’s oodles of visual style to be found in the movie, but unfortunately Avalon fares poorly in the storyline department. There is no doubt that viewers would be taken by the visual splendour in the film, but beneath the glossy exterior is a distinct lack of a coherent tale, and the open-ended denouement is likely to frustrate more than intrigue.

Set in an unspecified time in the future, humans have become enamoured with a battle simulation system called Avalon. One of the top players is Ash (Malgorzata Foremniak), a woman who has already reached the highest level attainable by her character class of "solo warrior" – Class A. Ash was also formerly from a legendary Avalon gaming group called Wizard, but the team broke up for reasons unknown. She is now a loner in the game, never seeking out to form partnerships with anyone, and she leads an equally solitary existence in real life, living with her dog in a one-room apartment.

Ash gets wind of the presence of a hidden level in Avalon called "Special A", which gives players lots of experience points, but is also highly perilous because the players will not be able to return to the real world if they die in Special A. Ash also discovers that one of her old gaming partners in Wizard, Murphy (Jerzy Gudejko) had traveled to the secreted level, but did not make it back. She is determined to locate the hidden entrance to Special A, but it cannot be done alone. Thus, she forges a reluctant partnership with a Thief called Stunner (Bartek Swiderski) and a mysterious player called Bishop (Dariusz Biskupski), in order to enter Special A. However, once Ash enters the level, she discovers that it’s not what it seems to be…

Visually, Avalon is a spectacle. In just the opening minutes, where we first see Ash in Avalon, there’s a barrage of visual elements to be taken in – the menacing tanks and airships patrolling the air and ground, characters "flattening" and exploding into triangular shards upon death, explosions suddenly halting and becoming a 2D image… The list goes on. Although filmed mainly in sepia tones, Avalon still offers enough eye candy to please even the most demanding of viewers. The use of the Polish language is also an interesting one, because a large majority of viewers would find the language a completely foreign one, thus augmenting the detached feel of the movie.

However, the emotional detachment is also a flaw in Avalon. The characters are just that – characters, and even Ash is so emotionally distant for a large part of the film that it is impossible for the audience to identify with her, or anyone else in the cast. The story, written by Kazunori Ito (and given an English translation by Neil Gaiman), is so steeped in symbolism and hidden meanings that it fails to make much sense on a first viewing. For example, in the first two reels, we see Ash performing some mundane everyday tasks, which is then repeated to a haunting song. It sounds beautiful (as does the rest of the score by Kenji Kawaii), looks intriguing, but it serves no clear purpose. Avalon isn’t compelling enough to warrant a repeated viewing, and the confounding denouement, which leaves many plot lines still dangling, will be deemed by many as an unsatisfactory one.

Final Word: A movie that has more style than substance, and presents a world that only first-person shooter gamers can truly appreciate. It’s pretty, but not pretty enough.