Avalon cast: Malgorzata Foremniak, Bartek Swiderski, Zuzanna Kasz, Jerzy Gudijka, and Dariusz Biskupski director: Mamoru Ishii 106 minutes (R) 2001 widescreen ratio 1.85:1 Miramax DVD Region 1 retail Also available to buy on video RATING: 9/10 reviewed by Amy Harlib

An unusual Asian treat (in Polish with English subtitles) screened at the Walter Reade Theatre in New York City’s Not Of This Earth: Sci-Fi Unbound film festival through 11th January 2004. Avalon, a live-action feature from Japanese director Mamoru Oshii (famed for the full-length anime classic Ghost In The Shell, 1985), though picked up by USA distributor Miramax and easily obtainable on video and DVD, never got the theatrical release it deserved and it is terrific on the large screen.
The title ‘Avalon’, borrowed from Arthurian myths about a legendary island resting place for the souls of deceased heroes, in the film refers to an illegal and habit-forming multi-player, online, role-playing game engrossing thousands of mostly young adults in a dystopian, near-future Middle Europa (actually metropolitan Polish locations). Thrilling, hi-tech, guerrilla warfare scenarios comprise the setting of this virtual reality game that connects players who select a class they wish to role play with goals to gather equipment, earn experience points and advance to higher levels.
Participants can adventure solo or in teams while coping with commonplace effects like time-lag which can ‘kill’ (force one out), and reset, which can be used to save oneself. When inside the VR dimension, the players appear wearing snazzy, mechanistically accessorised combat suits and wielding equally cool-looking, gadgetised weaponry. The game’s greatest and real challenging danger comes from potentially losing one’s mind in the flood of data and becoming one of the ‘unreturned’, forever cut-off from the physical body, trapped in a vegetative state.
Avalon the film’s photography uses unique sepia-tones to heighten the sense of blurred boundaries between mundane reality and the alluring VR gaming world where cyberspace effects get shown with digital image manipulation comprised of glowing, pastel spectrums of colours. This against the monochromatic, earth-coloured backgrounds produces dazzling visuals not quite like any seen before, rendering more compelling the story focusing on a top-notch, warrior-class, soloist celebrity of the Avalon game. Elegant-looking, intelligent, obsessed young woman Ash (Malgorzata Foremniak), named so for the white streak in her dark, shoulder length hair, earns what few others can achieve – enough to make a living from playing Avalon. Ash, living alone with only her pet basset hound companion in an apartment amidst post-industrial decay and indifferent pedestrians, centres her life on Avalon and social contact related to the same.
Ash’s routine gets jolted encountering Stunner (Bartek Swiderski), a creep from her past when she belonged to a team. Stunner entices Ash with insinuations concerning a clandestine, ultra-high level within Avalon, reachable only by a team including a prestigious bishop-class character capable of tracking down and surviving to confront the innocuous-seeming, moppet-like, elusive and enigmatic Ghost (Zuzanna Kasz). She functions to embody the Gate to the hazardous, hidden plane permitting no use of resets to escape yet possibly offering substantial remunerations, the purpose if this level remaining unknown – a potential rogue program?
Avalon’s risks become emphasised when Ash, after unsuccessful efforts by herself to find the secret zone, learns that her old group leader Murphy (Jerzy Gudijka), became one of the ‘unreturned’ after he failed to attain the same. Ash then allies with Stunner and a Bishop (Dariusz Biskupski), and together they elude the wary, paternal Game Master (Wladyslaw Kowalski) and with guile and struggle, access the sought-after level resulting in a startling, revelatory climax enhanced by photography in full-colour contrasting with everything seen before.
The film Avalon will please fans of director Oshii’s earlier work and aficionados of The Matrix, Dark City and the cyberpunk science fiction subgenre in particular, engrossing as well, lovers of thoughtful, speculative entertainment in general. This picture dazzles with its exceptional cinematography combined with judiciously spare, seminal special effects to depict a fascinating near-future metropolitan milieu of disaffected yet intriguing characters played by a cast of unknown yet talented actors. The star portraying Ash especially stands out, projecting a smouldering, intense intelligence within her lovely, expressive body.
She makes the viewer want to follow her navigations of Avalon’s world, a setting designed to provoke questions about the nature of reality, about the power of imagination and concerning the eternal human need to escape narrow confines of daily life for something more fulfilling. Kenji Kawai’s haunting score punctuated by an original choral refrain and blending the synthesiser with a full orchestra, perfectly accompanies everything. At times Avalon’s narrative becomes slow-paced, opaque and enigmatic, the ambiguous ending being particularly strange. These qualities, potentially exasperating for those insistent on slam-bang, mindless Hollywood action make Avalon rewarding for audiences willing to appreciate this film’s challenges and its share of visceral thrills amidst its mostly surreal, even dreamlike ambiance. For distinguished, different, provocative cinematic entertainment, the viewer would do well to seek out and explore Avalon.