Cinema Signal:

. "Zen Noir"

The only saving grace of this graceless attempt at stylized cinema is its brevity, but even 71 minutes can seem long. The intriguing promise of the title has yet to be realized.

In a stage play spareness of cast size and sets, everything is a refelection of the minimal budget involved. A Private Eye who has been grieving over the loss of his wife as a mechanism for a little noirish depth is, for some reason, investigating the sudden death of a Buddhist monk. Except for flashback as gauzy memory clips of his wife, the probe takes place in front of shoji screens, with props that don't sparkle with ingenuity either.

To somehow wrangle an impression of mystery, the monks adopt monklike silence when the gumshoe (Duane Sharp) asks them questions with someone's idea of Dashiell Hammett stacatto. When they do finally speak, it's word games and inscrutability that's more annoying than comedic, or in any other way enriching, until that technique is abandoned for the P.I.'s fling with a bald but endowed female monk (Debra Miller) and lessons from the temple zen master (Kim Chan).

The unanswerable zen question here is why a distributor would detect a potential audience for what is essentially an amateurish piece of work that belongs on an experimental theatre stage in some town's art district. My guess is that they were a mite too desperate for material and took a positive response from an overeager festival audience as a sign of commercial prospects. But the enlightenment they're likely to receive is an uninspiring arthouse payoff. Or, so this zen critic believes.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner
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