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Zen Noir

Not rated, 71 min. Directed by Marc Rosenbush. Starring Duane Sharp, Kim Chan, Debra Miller, Ezra Buzzington, Jennifer Siebel, Howard Fong.

REVIEWED By Josh Rosenblatt, Fri., Oct. 13, 2006

Haunted by memories of his dead wife and weighed down by all the hackneyed baggage of a cinematic private investigator – trench coat, cocked fedora, loosened tie, five o’clock shadow – the nameless Detective (Sharp) of Zen Noir is at the bottom of a bottle when a mysterious phone call comes in warning him of a potential murder at a Buddhist monastery. Awakening from his stupor, he crashes into the temple like a truth-seeking whirlwind out of old Hollywood – just out for the facts ma’am – but he soon finds his linear line of hard-talking interrogation stymied at every turn by the opaque deflections and clever parries of the resident monks. When he asks what time the victim died, they ask him to define “time.” When he tries to run a bad-cop routine on the Master (Chan) and the enigmatic old man responds by producing an orange – and other nonsense – out of thin air, I found myself wondering at several points why the Detective didn’t just use his gun. These monks are so self-assured they’re even immune to the persuasiveness of the Detective’s grizzled voiceovers and jazz accompaniment. The first half of Zen Noir is broad farce, and Sharp approaches the role of the flustered PI with all the subtlety of Yosemite Sam squaring off with Bugs Bunny. He blusters through each interaction with the irritatingly abstruse mendicants, dialogues that play out like bad Abbott and Costello routines, full of comical misunderstandings and insufferable, fast-paced wordplay. Those first 40 minutes, however, are a blessing when compared to act two, wherein our hero loses his identity and embarks upon a spiritual search for self-discovery and the true nature of mystery and death. He forgoes his tough-guy mannerisms and dependency on logical thought and goes tumbling into a world of deep-breathing, symbolic hallucinations, and freshman-year film-school camera tricks. To top things off, Zen Noir looks like it was shot in someone’s garage: You get the sense that where the tatami-mat floor of the monastery ends, the blinking neon lights outside the detective's shoddy apartment begin. Like its hero, Zen Noir doesn’t exist for even a second outside the vocabulary of the film world. Great movies can make you believe in a life beyond the frame; Zen Noir can’t even convince you that what you’re seeing onscreen is actually happening. Like it might all be an unpleasant reaction to something you ate. (Director Marc Rosenbush will attend both Friday-evening shows, and the 4 and 7pm shows on Sunday.)
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