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"Shall We Dance?"

THE JAPANESE frown upon the touch. Let alone kissing in public, they do not even like to shake hands. In a society that has kept public demonstration of private emotion out of its collective psyche, Masayuki Suo's 1996, "Shall We Dansu" (in Japanese), caused a sensation.

His hero, the well-known Japanese actor, Koji Yakusho, plays a bored salary man, who chances upon a dance school on one of his endless suburban train journeys around Tokyo. He begins his dance lessons from a pretty, young instructress, who teaches him not just the joy of foot tapping, but also the sublime comfort of physical proximity.

Hollywood took the cue of a great theme, but it did not quite understand that the Japanese film had a certain essence that was peculiar to that society.

Peter Chelsom's English version, "Shall We Dance ?" has Richard Gere playing Yakusho and Jennifer Lopez is the teacher.

Admittedly, this movie has its great moments: Lopez while instructing Gere on how to perfect the Rumba, tells him in all mock seriousness that ``it is the vertical expression of a horizontal wish.''

Again, when the couple come together in a disappointingly brief number on the dance floor, and that too right at the end of the film, the scene has the same magnetic charm that a blind Al Pacino portrayed in "Scent of a Woman."

Yes, Chelsom does captivate his viewer with such pleasant feeling. We see the wonderful, heart-warming transformation of Gere, whose spring in his stride as he begins his journey from the tedium of matrimony to the exhilaration of Waltz and Foxtrot is captured with remarkable finesse.

There are also comic sequences that add to the movie's strength. But it also distracts us from what we would like to see: divine dance as it takes its first stumbling steps into the higher realm of poise and perfection.

Lopez fails to give the kind of attention we would have expected her to pay to the dance floor: she is so wooden, often absolutely devoid of visible emotion, that somehow her dancing shoes stop a wee bit short of creating that magic which might have made Chelsom's effort satisfying.

Also, "Shall We Dance?" wanders too easily into matrimonial discord. Susan Sarandon as Gere's screen wife turns jealous of her husband's smile, hires a private detective and when she finds that the mistress is not a woman, but step and sound, she gets hold of another excuse to beat him with. All this takes a long time, while one waits around to see more of music and dance. A film on dance must have enough to get us on a toe-tapping mode. Instead, Chelsom tries to push a fantasy that soon sinks into despair of sorts. "Shall We Dance?" despite its pluses, fails to impress the way its Japanese version did nearly a decade ago.

GAUTAMAN BHASKARAN

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