Love is a battlefield

AS THE TWIN CITIES' third Sam Fuller retro in seven years, Oak Street Cinema's "Fuller Nights" series can't have been hurt by the coincidental release of Saving Private Ryan, which a number of critics have used as an occasion to invoke the veteran director of The Big Red One. Alas, the six-film series's only war movie is Fuller's 1957 Indochina actioner, China Gate (screening on August 17)--but that's not to say the other five lack combat. Beyond the preponderance of sweaty close-ups and rat-a-tat-tat cutting in Fuller's films, his peacetime cinema views relationships as a string of tribal skirmishes. "Love is like a battle," one character muses in The Crimson Kimono (screening Monday). "Somebody has to get a bloody nose."

If Fuller's punchy, tabloid sense of conflict seems old news to some cineastes, the 1959 Crimson Kimono (which isn't on video) stands to reiterate his daring as regards race and gender. After a stripper is shot in the neck on a boulevard in L.A.'s Little Tokyo, detective buddies Charlie Bancroft (Glenn Corbett) and Joe Kajaku (James Shigeta)--who met in a foxhole during the Korean War--proceed to investigate the murder and come upon Chris (Victoria Shaw), a beautiful painter of Asian subjects with whom both men fall in love. "Let's not trigger off a bomb," the Japanese-American Joe tells the Caucasian Chris to defuse their sexual fireworks. Nevertheless, Charlie explodes when he learns of Joe's crush, and while this white cop insists that what he's feeling is just "normal, healthy, jealous hate" (a typically black-comic Fullerian contradiction), Joe doesn't hesitate to accuse his friend of racism.

Provocative even (or especially?) by today's standards, The Crimson Kimono strategically spreads the ambiguity of the white man's reaction across the entire film until it spills off the screen and into the viewer's lap. For starters, how do we interpret the attitude of the white director? Has Fuller dubiously placed the burden of racism upon the man of color, whose "paranoid" perceptions are self-fulfilling? Is he critiquing the insidious ease with which white people can claim that race is not an issue? Or is this supreme pessimist simply lamenting the perpetuity of racism in an "enlightened" era and the indiscriminate way in which it colors all else? In an interview Fuller gave near the end of his life (he died last year at the age of 85), the former newspaper man distilled his intricate motives into a snappy lead. "That picture I made for one reason," he said. "I wanted to show how racism can come from anywhere."

Released the same year as Douglas Sirk's glossier but similarly complex race-relations tract, Imitation of Life, The Crimson Kimono earned notices that seemed to invert the gritty tenor of its own reportage. The New York Times couldn't even be bothered to run a review, while Variety's brisk pan criticized the director's method of making the viewer feel "disturbed and uneasy"--which Fuller no doubt would have interpreted as a rave. As he told an interviewer in the '60s: "I hate scenes, and I've seen them a thousand times, where one fellow loses the girl to another guy, and the loser says, 'Well, we'll still be friends. Don't worry.' No! Not in my film. [Kimono's white cop] didn't give a damn whether the guy was yellow or white. He was angry because the guy stole his girl. And he stayed angry."

The Crimson Kimono screens at Oak Street Cinema on Monday at 7:30 and 9:15 p.m.; the "Fuller Nights" series continues on consecutive Mondays through September 7.

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