The Most Terrible Time in My Life is a dangerous movie. Not because it's beautiful, or because it transmits subversive messages and depicts graphic violence. It's dangerous because it makes filmmaking (or great filmmaking) seem so easy, you wonder why you aren't out making a great film instead of sitting in the dark watching one.

Such considerations are dangerous but inevitable in the case of this wonderful film, because it is composed of the most basic elements. It has a young, handsome private detective (Masatoshi Nagase from Cold Fever and Mystery Train), who specializes in tracking down people, and drives around a big city in a cool convertible (anyone can come up with a character like that). His office is located in a movie theater (rather blunt commentary on the condition of cinema). Then we have a gangland war (everybody loves violence and guns), a sidekick who drives a taxi and walks and talks in a clumsy manner (that's comic relief!), and a struggle to the death between two brothers who are hit men for the Mob (a true tragedy). Nothing here seems exceptional, other than the fact that it is a Japanese film.

But this ease, this simplicity, is an illusion--a trap produced by the fundamental paradox at the heart of any creative endeavor, which is that artists work hard to hide the hard work they put into their art. It is not the content that matters, but rather how well the director can erase him or herself from that content and vanish from the picture. As James Joyce once pointed out, an artist must be like God: We must never see Him, yet we must be sure that someone or something is there, behind every scene of existence. The fact that The Most Terrible Time in My Life seems effortless and basic does not mean making a great film is easy, but that the director worked hard to make this flawless illusion possible.

For those who are not obsessed with the mechanics of cinema and the arguments concerning the role of the artist, or worst of all, for those who place content above style, The Most Terrible Time in My Life has a little treat for you: Content-wise, the movie deals with the treatment of Chinese and Taiwanese immigrants in Japan. This aspect of the movie is especially fascinating for Americans, because racism in this country is usually associated with skin color rather than language. In the social world of the film, it is your name (Kim, Hai) or command of Japanese that marks you as a target for racist attacks. But I think all this race stuff is secondary. What is most impressive to me is the glorious style of this film: It's simply gorgeous!