Imagine if someone made a film about a political assassination, something on the order of the death of Robert F. Kennedy, but injected irreverence and black comedy to make it more like M*A*S*H than JFK. A movie like that would most likely flame out horrendously in American theaters and be savaged for being in “bad taste”, but would later garner a cult audience on video for those smart enough to not take it personally.
What I have described is more or less the case with Sang-soo Im’s The President’s Last Bang. His film is a funny, blackly comic and sometimes downright snide treatment of one of South Korea’s touchiest political issues — the assassination of President Chun-hee Park by one of his own trusted aides. It reminded me, in a good way, of two other Korean films I’ve seen recently that mixed politics and black humor: Nowhere to Hide and Memories of Murder. All three are ultimately serious films, but they take the long way around to get to their real subjects because a more direct route would be like cheating. Read more
The problem with the Samurai trilogy is that its scope as a film does not match its quality as a story. It’s especially problematic because the subject is one of Japan’s most enduring heroes, legendary swordsman Miyamoto Musashi, who has been the subject of more movies, TV shows, books and comics than I can enumerate here without running out of disk space. The three films in the Samurai cycle run long, almost five hours in total, but they never reach all that deep, nor rise all that high.
I understand that for many people this will not be a mortal sin, and that (so to speak) any samurai movie may be better than no samurai movie at all. Fair enough, but for me the Samurai trilogy comes off as a minor affair, terribly hidebound and stodgy, redeemed from obscurity mostly because of Toshiro Mifune’s inspired performance. It’s worth it to see him, but only if you have already worked your way through many of his other, better films first and have a few hours to kill. Read more
Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children is not remarkable for its storyline or even its imagery but for how completely and shamelessly it panders to a very specific audience and gets away with it. Like the Magic Theater in Steppenwolf, it is Not For Everyone — only the people who played the video game and are dying to see something with their favorite characters in it just one more time, even if it was made with near-contempt for said audience. For those of us who don’t know Cloud Strife from Sagara Sanosuke, FFVII:AC is essentially a kabuki performance. It’s highly stylized, elegant to watch, and utterly impenetrable unless you go in armed with the footnotes — or, again, unless you’re a fan.
Come to think of it, if you are a fan, you’re probably not reading this to get an idea of whether or not it’s worth watching; you’ve probably already seen it. FFVII:AC is practically critic-proof, and the evidence is right there in the opening title card: “To those who loved this world, and the friendly company therein, this reunion is for you.” If you are a fan, nothing I write here will change your mind, and I anticipate finding a burning Sephiroth on my front lawn for my efforts. I approached the movie as a foreigner, a man in a country where he does not know the history, the culture, or the folkways, and I suspect for that precise reason I found myself hopelessly lost. Read more
Goyokin is the best samurai film I’ve seen yet that was made more or less exclusively for Japan and not intended for a foreign audience. I’ve written before how the DVD format and a general broadening of awareness about samurai films and Japanese culture have made it possible for many of even their more esoteric products to be sold domestically and reach a receptive audience. Even five years ago I’m not sure anyone would have dared to market a box set of all the Battles Without Honor and Humanity films, but we have that now, along with a horde of other good-to-great-to-outstanding movies that might never have been seen in English-speaking territories: Portrait of Hell, Samurai Rebellion, Swords of Vengeance.
Now add Goyokin to that list, a title which even many samurai movie buffs haven’t known about until recently. The title refers to the gold of the shogunate, mined and transported with great difficulty from one of the outlying islands in the Japanese archipelago; to interfere with the gold transport is punishable by death. The film itself opens with a young woman returning to her home village — at the landing point for the gold convoy — to find that everyone there has been massacred. Rather than tell us about the massacre directly from there, the movie chooses instead to back into the rest of the story by flashing ahead a few years and focusing on Magobei (Tatsuya Nakadai), one of the men who was present at the massacre. Read more
Champloo, in the Okinawan language, is a kind of stew with everything in the world in it, and who better than to brew up a stew of samurai movies and hip-hop attitude than Cowboy Bebop creator Shinichiro Watanabe? Bebop was about space-age technology fused with jazz-age attitude: in another century, Spike could have been a torpedo for the Chicago mob, and Faye Valentine his moll. Champloo takes samurai-movie conventions — elaborate swordfights, matters of honor, quests for vengeance — and adds graffiti and breakdancing and “b-boy” culture, but never in excess and in just the right ways so that what comes out is a blend and not a collision. This is a tough assignment to pull off but somehow they did it, and what came out feels like (to quote Harlan Ellison) an explosion in a fresh-air factory.
If cultural influences don’t mean a thing to you, they don’t have to. Above and beyond the list of ingredients, Champloo is terrific entertainment — funny, fast-moving, great to look at, and compelling enough that when it’s over you want to go back for more. No knowledge of samurai-movie conventions is really needed, but if you’re curious, watch it now and then come back to it later after you’ve checked out Zatoichi and Lone Wolf and Cub, and see if you see things differently. What they are doing here is not mocking or kidding samurai movies (that would be easy, and has been done to death) but taking the standard-issue pieces that most of them use and putting them back together in an unexpected way. (I was going to say remixing, but if you watch the show that term pretty much suggests itself.)Read more
The Constant Gardener comes billed alternately as a political thriller or a love story, but it’s really the best kind of movie of all — one that stands entirely outside of any specific genre. Yes, it’s based on a novel by John Le Carré, and his books are typically branded as political thrillers, but like Graham Greene’s work they also operate as straight literary fiction. Gardener, the movie, also doesn’t need a label to be outstanding — it is a great story, and even a troubling and angry one on top of that. I am not someone who insists that a story have a degree of moral outrage to be good; there are plenty of novels and movies that have no moral component and are still outstanding drama. With Gardener, the drama is effortlessly blended into the story’s other concerns so you never feel like you’re getting a lecture. It’s all of a piece.
Gardener deals with Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes), a British diplomat who is a decent and hardworking chap but clearly not willing to stick his neck out all that far. One day when delivering a fairly boring lecture for a colleague he’s buttonholed at the end by Tessa (Rachel Weisz), a young firebrand with a lot of pith in her for the way England has collaborated with the Bush Administration in the Second Gulf War. Her pith gives way to venom, her venom to tears, and Justin rather awkwardly tries to comfort her. More than that, he even speaks in her defense, however tentatively, when other members of the audience boo her roundly for speaking out in this manner. Read more
Many of the movies I review from Japan were made for Japanese audiences and make no concessions to anyone else, but as a general understanding of such things has spread it’s become possible to enjoy them for what they are. Samurai movies have had a cult following for a long time in the West, but now people are showing an appreciation for everything from yakuza-honor epics to bizarre J-horror productions like Ki-rei. Portrait of Hell has never appeared outside of Japan until now, and after seeing it for myself I can see why. It takes someone with a little bit of familiarity with Japanese popular cinema to really savor this movie, but getting to know Japanese cinema no longer requires going on word-of-mouth recommendations and buying blurry third-generation bootlegs.
Even existing samurai-movie fans might have a problem connecting with the film because of its theme, since there are almost no swordfights or gory beheadings. It focuses instead on a painter in Heian Japan, a man of Korean ancestry, who creates morbid but astoundingly emotional work, and is asked to create something that goes against his sensibilities. This sounds like it would make for a static tableau of a movie (like Rikyu), but instead it’s feisty and often melodramatic, not afraid to use theatrical gestures or frenzied flourishes to make its points. The story was derived from a short novel by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa — famous forever for Rashomon, but the movie made from that story and this film could not be more dissimilar. Read more