Christine Spines
January 26, 2007 AT 05:00 AM EST

She never utters a word, but each time she’s on screen, Rinko Kikuchi blares like a silent siren signaling danger ahead. As Chieko, Babel‘s surly deaf Tokyo teen, Kikuchi embodies the snarling rage and thinly veiled neediness of a rabid dog. With her hungry eyes and frank sensuality, Kikuchi makes for a jarring presence from the minute we’re thrust into her world — a kinetic, hormonal battleground of urban adolescence. Sex is the only tool she can find to escape her muted reality. And each clumsy attention-grabbing move — from going commando in a micro-miniskirt to French-kissing her straight-arrow dentist — pushes her further into the fringes.

Kikuchi, who had worked mostly in Japanese films and commercials before she was cast in a cattle-call audition, plays much younger than her 26 years, imbuing Chieko with impressive fragility. It’s hard not to wince each time she seeks to pawn her innocence on the next guy to pass into her orbit. ”Chieko has all these frustrations and emotions contained by this very thin layer of skin,” the Tokyo resident says (through a translator). The actress insists she was unfazed by her culminating moment on screen, in which she spends what seems like an eternity in the buff while propositioning a police detective. ”It’s the most important scene to describe Chieko’s feelings, so I didn’t really think about the nudity,” Kikuchi says. ”She’s very sensitive and ready to explode.”

The same is true of Kikuchi, whose performance has helped the first-time nominee snag the same CAA agent as such Oscar perennials as Kate Winslet and Cate Blanchett. ”Rinko is an animal. I’ve never seen such passion,” says Babel director Alejandro González Iñárritu. ”She’s so mysterious. You feel like anything can happen.”

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