Archive for the Asian Cinema Category

Spike’s Top 20 Films of the 00s: #20 Oldboy

Posted in Asian Cinema, Movies on July 6, 2009 by Spike Marshall

Oldboy 2With a red band trailer circulating for Park Chan-wook’s vampiric new project THIRST I’ve been thinking about the series of films that took Park from the Asian cinema ghetto and placed him into the global, critical, consciousness. Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance trilogy benefited from, and perhaps in its own way helped kick start, the western fascination with Korean cinema. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance was one of the first modern Korean titles to receive a wide release in the United Kingdom, as part of the now defunct Tartan brand, but the influx of Korean cinema onto western shores seemed to happen around the time that Oldboy found its way onto western DVDs.

Bolstered by massive amounts of critical praise the film found itself even enjoying a limited theatrical run. Such was the success of Oldboy that Park Chan-wook went from being another anonymous Asian director to actually having people actively waiting for his next release. This change in perception was almost certainly due to Oldboy itself, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance whilst being a fantastic film was savaged by most reviewers largely due to the fact it’s subtle and reflective look on the cyclical nature of violence was marketed alongside the hyper violence of Takashi Miike and the perversion of Shinya Tsukamoto on Tartan’s infamous Asia Extreme catalogue. So six years after release how does the film that turned Park Chan-wook from an enfant-terrible into a critical darling hold up and does it deserve a place in the top 20 films of the 00s?

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Of course given that this is was a film released in 2003 I’m going to not hold back on the spoilers so if you’ve never seen the film I’d flitter off elsewhere.

The most striking thing about Oldboy is how rock solid the thematics of the piece are in contrast to how experimental the film was at times. Chan-wook’s previous films were remarkably formal affairs, offering striking cinematography and character focused storytelling over cinematic tics and tricks. Whilst still retaining some of his previous formalism Oldboy also had a kitchen sink style feel to it at times. For every effect that works seamlessly, for example the use of the bleach bypass process to accentuate the putrefied colour scheme of the film is used perfectly to create a feeling of rotten elegance, there is an effect where you understand the intent but can question the quality. Oh Dae-Su’s descent into madness as he is held captive is perfectly captured by claustrophobic camera angles and Choi Min-sik’s delirious performance and noirish voice-over and is almost sabotaged by crude and over zealous use of CGI at one point. But even with a few stylistic missteps the film is still absolute stunning to look at. As mentioned earlier the film employs the bleach bypass process used by Darius Khondji in films like Se7en and combines it with a colour scheme of festering greens and dark reds to create a look that is rotten and decadent at the same time. It’s a beautiful baroque painting of a film that’s been left to curl and yellow in a dank basement and the look suits the subject perfectly, but really despite being a visually astonishing film Oldboy’s power comes from its narrative and thematic heft.
Oldboy 3Oldboy plays a number of narrative tricks, the first being the sleight of hand involving the imprisonment of its hero Oh Dae-Su who is introduced at his most iconic, holding a man from the precipice of a tall building by his tie, before flashing back to his doughy, drunken, self locked up at a police station. This incarceration is going to be a prevalent theme throughout the  film as Oh Dae-Su moves from the confines of the police station to the confines of his private prison and then the metaphysical confines of the machinations of his nemesis Lee Woo-jin. With an initial viewing we’re lead to lead to believe that Oh Dae-Su’s incarceration in a private prison is the set-up for a revenge story, his training regimes and attempted escapes giving us a picture of a man who has shaped himself from slovenly normality into a bestial force of nature. The transformation, both physically and mentally, of Oh Dae-Su is the primary concern of the first act and it serves to align our sympathies with the character. Oh Dae-Su is the central protagonist of the film and he occupies at least 90% of the scenes in the film and as such we find ourselves relating to him despite early revelations that he’s not the most pleasant person in the world. This relatability is important with Oh Dae-Su because we have to witness his transgressions, without being repulsed by them. In a standard revenge film Oh Dae-Su’s brutality and single mindedness would be a virtue, in Oldboy his transformation into a lean, mean, vengeance getting machine is part and parcel of Lee Woo-Jin’s ultimate victory

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The end of the film suggests a traditional happy ending. The villain has been dispatched, his henchman overpowered and killed, and the hero is going to spend the rest of his life with the girl of his dreams. Unfortunately in Oldboy’s case the villain killed himself after achieving all of his goals and the hero has chosen to carry on an incestuous relationship with his daughter rather than face the truth of his predicament. The end of Oldboy, with Oh Dae-Su first being reduced to a primal beast like state and then begging to have the truth of his crimes erased from his memory completely changes the the nature of the revenge story at the films heart. The ending of the film switches the focus of vengeance from Oh Dae-Su to Lee Woo-jin and paints the two characters in different lights. Whilst Lee Woo-jin is undoubtedly still the villain of the piece, his heart ache and emotional investment in his scheme makes his revenge seem far more ‘earned’ than the brutish vengeance demanded by Oh Dae-Su. Lee Woo-jin is quite obviously insane and his desire for vengeance comes from a place that is both irrational and utterly rational. Oh Dae-Su’s initial crime is a forgettable moment of gossip, but the ramifications of this action (the death of Lee Woo-jin’s sister and, arguably, the destruction of Lee Woo-jin himself) are far too significant for Lee Woo-jin to accept. When contrasting the two characters it becomes interesting to see that Lee Woo-jin’s violence and insidiousness is dictated by love, whereas Oh Dae-Su’s violence and brutality are dictated by a logic skewed by a decade and a half of imprisonment. Lee Woo-jin is guilty of incest himself and is for all intents and purposes the villain of the piece, but his systematic destruction of Oh Dae-Su as a person is so complete that it becomes difficult to root for the films hero, his final, awful, decision just compounding this problem.
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Going back to my initial point about narrative tricks, the greatest trick the film plays is using the language of archetypal revenge movies to align the audience with a character who starts out as vaguely repugnant and is then reduced his most base and brutish form. Oh Dae-Su’s actions are never pleasant (from his oafish behaviour in the police station, to the revelation of all of his enemies, to the way he eats a live squid, to his attempted rape of Mido, to his brutal torture techniques through to his final decision to live with his incestuous relationship) but the use of subjective camera, the use of cinematic tropes, Choi Min-sik’s powerhouse performance and the use of music create a character who is lamentable and almost charming in his singularity of purpose. Lee Woo-jin is weird and aloof throughout the film, Oh Dae-Su in contrast is down to earth and given these two archetypes we as the viewer tend to gravitate towards the earthy and knowable. As such we find ourselves on Oh Dae-Su’s side and stylistic choices like the one shot corridor fight create heroic parallels for Oh Dae-Su whilst the use of     Vivaldi in the torture scene makes a moment that should be horrifying exhilirating instead. In fact Yeong Wook-jo’s score is used to accentuate character beats and cement audience expectations at every turn. Oh Dae-Su’s music is punchy and taut whilst the themes associated with Lee Woo-jin are more formalised and often far more melancholic. We’re even given hints as to the true nature of Mido through the melancholic waltz which accompanies some of her scenes.
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As such the entire point of the film is to question our notion of revenge and vengeance. The trilogy of films Park Chan-wook concerning the theme of vengeance would all look at the nature of revenge in different ways. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance took a nihilistic view on the dehumanising effect of vengeance and retribution, Lady Vengeance examined just who deserved vengeance and who was entitled to become a punisher, Oldboy changed our notions on what exactly we expected from a revenge film. Despite the journey being centred on Oh Dae-Su the ultimate revenge was had by the villain of the piece and in doing so he burdened the hero with all of his own crimes. Lee Woo-jin’s murderous nature and incestous relationships were replicated in Oh Dae-Su against his will, Oh Dae-Su’s quest for vengeance an extension of the prison he had spent a decade and a half in. The more Oh Dae-Su struggles to find the truth the more he follows the path Lee Woo-jin has set for him.
Oldboy is a film about men and the monsters they can become due to obsession. From Oh Dae-Su’s bestial transformation, to the calculating inhumanity of Lee Woo-jin. It’s a film powered by three fantastic central performances (Choi Min-sik as Oh Dae-Su, Yu Ji-tae as Lee Woo-jin and Kang Hye-jeong as Mido) and given shape and form by the intellect of Park Chan-wook. It’s a beautiful, jacobean tragedy of a film, with vibrant set design conflicting with the rot of the bleach bypass process and the eulogised score. It’s beautiful, primal, vulgar and intellectual.
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Cinema Obscura:Rampo Noir

Posted in Asian Cinema, Cinema Obscura, Movies, Review with tags , , on May 13, 2008 by Spike Marshall

Rampo Noir posterTadanobu Asano stands naked in the middle of a bleached desert. As he moves forwards the eerie silence of the scene is broken by moments of vicious discord. It’s hard to make out what is happening at first, two naked bodies (moving too fast to be identified as male or female at first) battle around a room as static noise shreds your silence accustomed ear. These glimpses of madness and cruelty which make up the first film in Rampo Noir (Mar’s Canal) serve as the perfect introduction for the films which are to come.

Rampo Noir represents the latest in a long line of films adapted from the works of novelist Edogawa Rampo (the first movie based on a Rampo story was made in the mid 1920s). This quartet of adaptations gave four directors (two up and comers and two veterans) the resources to create truly lavish productions and while the money invested is utterly evident the films are in no way tied to notions of pleasing the lowest common denominator. In actuality the tone of the film is almost art house in tone with the second feature ‘The Hell of Mirrors’ being the closest to a traditional horror.

The Hell of Mirrors

The Hell of Mirrors is easily the most accomplished and confident of the films in the anthology which is no surprise considering it was helmed by occasional Ultraman Director and general Japanese cinema veteran Akio Jissoj. Sticking to a fairly regular story and narrative structure The Hell of Mirrors is essentially a battle of wills between a Narcissistic mirror maker and the cool calculating Detective Kogoro Akech. Detective Akech is something of a common character throughout the Rampo writings and in The Hell of Mirrors he is played with near shell shocked grace by Tadanobu Asano. Assigned to find the cause of a number of connected deaths Akech never appears particularly interested in the case until mythical and mystical aspects are unearthed. His detached demeanour moving to childlike enthusiasm and almost empathy with a character who should by all rights be his nemesis.

The Hell of Mirrors is a fantastic looking film but is essentially empty in terms of plotline. There is a story but it lacks a significant beginning and then seems to roll along at its own place until the finish. It is a series of set pieces held together by the lightest narrative strands. It also displays a truly odd moment of self destruction in the usage of a particularly strong bondage scene which serves no purpose other than to make a film which is almost mystically beautiful feel a little seedy. It’s not that the scene is repulsive or particularly extreme; it just lacks any cohesion with the rest of the movie and as such seems to be placed in to either fulfil a contractual obligation for extremity or satisfy one of the director’s quirks.

Caterpillar

In fact such a bondage scene would feel far more at home in the third film of the anthology, Hisayasu Sato’s Caterpillar.

Telling the tale of a wounded war veteran Caterpillar maintains a sickly, dangerous and claustrophobic sense of dark erotica which many would have only seen previously in the final minutes of Miike’s Audition. The crux of the story is that a young war hero has returned home little more than a shell of a man. Badly burned and missing all of his limbs and despite an awesome cameo in a Metallica video his life is suddenly without meaning. His attempts to exist are jeopardised by his wife who has cultivated a desire to hack parts off her little ‘Caterpillar’.

Centred around a cast of three (with Asano chipping in a bizarre prologue and even weirder epilogue) the film really is a marvel in that it remains utterly engrossing despite the repugnant characters. There’s something visceral about the torture inflicted upon the Caterpillar and something oddly compelling about his wife’s drift from maternal madness to frenzied passion. So powerful is this central duo that the third character often feels like an utter intruder which is perhaps the intent of the film. Played with utter disdain and filled with posturing macabre fantasies the third character seems like more of a plot tool than anything else.

Still as a horror Caterpillar is the best thing in the Anthology and remains suitably creepy hours after watching. Which is why the next films comes as such a surprise

Insect

A kitsch, richly funny, beautifully designed and in no way horrific tale of obsession rounds off the anthology. The first film from manga artist Atsushi Kaneko is perhaps the most visually arresting of the anthology. While it doesn’t have the sheer beauty of The Hell of Mirrors, Insect’s oversaturated hues and set design are suitably dynamic. In the film Asano (he appears in all four films in various roles) stars as an obsessive fan of a famous pop starlet who is constantly contending with a peculiar neurosis involving bugs.

Insect threatens to undo the previous work in the anthology by book ending Rampo Noir with a film that is at best confused and at worst incompetent. It has all the styling of a great film but it appears at times that the director is working with little understanding of purpose other than aesthetic. As a result the product ends up feeling more like an art project gone wrong than an actual movie.

More than anything else Rampo Noir represents what experienced directors can do when given sufficient resources and a modicum of creative control. It also shows that the same conditions given to newer directors can be damaging to the final product. The Hell of Mirrors and Caterpillar are spectacular pieces of work largely because the veteran directors know exactly what they wish to achieve and as such use their budgets to convey a professional representation of their ideas.

The newer directors both seem to fall into a trap of concept over production, a raft of ideas extrapolated upon at the expense of a cohesive final film. Rampo Noir is a film well worth watching for four very different takes on work which has obviously become deeply routed in the Japanese consciousness.

Spike’s Classics: All About Lily Chou-Chou

Posted in Asian Cinema, Movies, Spike's Classics with tags , on April 29, 2008 by Spike Marshall

DVD Cover

Link To Excerpts from the Beautiful Soundtrack

All About Lily Chou-Chou is an interesting piece of filmmaking, partially due to its roots. Director Shunji Iwai would launch an online novel in early 2000, creating a fictional website and posting in the forum section as several different characters. For half a year the site would be regularly updated with members of the public allowed to become part of the ongoing narrative. He would close down the site in late 2000 and start work on the film version, using previously untested Digital Cameras to quickly and concisely film his product before it was released to critical and surprising box office acclaim in 2001. The film would take the constantly evolving narrative of the website and adapt it into a surprisingly bleak and yet elegantly beautiful look at life for modern Japanese schoolchildren.

For anyone who had to deal with bullying, or knew a victim of bullying, All About Lily Chou-Chou will probably be an ordeal. Its lucid, vivid and repellently uncompromising look at social isolation and bullying would probably cut a little too close to the bone. Not that Lily Chou-Chou is the first film to deal with such issues (bullying is after all a fairly generic cinematic trope), but it is rare that the issue is dealt with in a way that is both lyrical and incredibly visceral. Whilst most other films offer a buffer zone of detachment Lily Chou-Chou forces the viewers to feel and relate to its young stars through its near documentary style of film making.

Yuichi

Despite this documentary stylisation film is stunning to look at, its colour palette and design ethos giving vibrancy to an altogether rather bleak film. Shot entirely on DV cameras the film has a sort of ethereal quality, a point reinforced by the hazy and often dreamlike narrative. If anything Lily Chou-Chou feels like a film which is suffering from post traumatic stress, its recollection of scenes hazy and confused, events cutting off and merging haphazardly. As such we are largely only offered glimpses of the story; key events delivered without context which all build up to create the central arc of the film. A contributing factor to this haphazardness is the way the chronology in the film works, or to be more honest doesn’t.

All About Lily Chou-Chou follows two Japanese schoolboys as they leave Junior School, go on a summer vacation and attend the first year of High School. Yuichi is something of an introvert, devoting his time to the running of his fansite and listening to the music of Lily Chou-Chou. He has a few friends at school which is more than can be said for Hoshino, the academic star of his year whose success has ostracised him from the rest of his peers. The film opens in high school with Hoshino having already turned on all around him and set himself up as a vicious and brutal bully. His relationship with Yuichi is never fully explained until about thirty minutes into the film when the narrative doubles back on itself to examine the previous year’s events.

HoshinoIn a lot of other films the boys bonding and eventual trip to a sunny locale (in this case Okinawa) would be handled with a light and breezy touch, the slight of hand to prepare you for the sucker punch of the next two acts. What Lily Chou-Chou does is cast a shadow over these moments of exuberance; we know that Hoshino is going to turn out bad. But by looking at these happier times with foreknowledge of his present situation everything becomes a little darker, a pall is cast over every event and the viewer finds themselves searching for links as to Hoshino’s change in behaviour.

Our first encounter with Yuichi is as a miscreant and then as a victim, our first encounter with Hoshino is as a victim and then a miscreant. The establishing moment for Hoshino is a speech he is forced to read on behalf of his classmates explaining their hopes and aspirations for high school. You can see the duality immediately, the pride at being chosen for this honour conflicting with his persistent knowledge of his classmate’s hatred.

This trip to Okinawa during the school holidays is funded by the aftermath of a petty theft, the boys descending on a robbery and sprinting away with the loot they find. It is Hoshino who makes the first move and invariably secures the money for the boys and it is another layer added to the character. He is already acting out by this point, but without the context of the schoolyard or his later violence. It is only during the trip to Okinawa and a series of near fatal accidents that Hoshino truly withdraws from the group. His near Shakespearean fall into isolation and near madness is juxtaposed against the stories of those whom he abuses and allows to be abused. Indeed, the last hour of the film is so shocking because of the fact that Hoshino is so calculating. His actions are carried out with a cool, detached, malice and his crimes become more and more unspeakable.

A film which started off as an average treatise on school life suddenly descending into a brutal, nihilistic, vision of a schoolboy kingpin who blackmails his schoolmates into prostitution, organises a brutal gang rape and ritually humiliates one of his closest friends. Indeed Hoshino’s first two acts aren’t particularly violent but demonstrate a cruelty and malice that is utterly disturbing. We first see him betray Yuichi (setting his gang on his former friend and destroying his prized CD and CD player) and then we see him assert dominance over the school bully by stripping him of his pride. He doesn’t particularly harm the bully, he just makes a mockery of him in a detached and sociopathic way.

His snapping of Yuichi’s copy of the new Lily Chou-Chou CD is perhaps far more significant than any other action in the film. It’s a severance of ties between him and his old friend and also a pollution of the ‘ether’ a spiritual energy which Yuichi and Hoshino talk about on their website. The major indication of the extent of this action is the fact that the near continuous soundtrack is ominously missing for a few minutes after this action. In fact it doesn’t return until the film goes back into itself for the flashback. Music plays such a large and vital part of the film that its sudden absence feels almost like an assault and its conspicuous absence suggests the destruction of purity far better than anything else in the film.

At its core All About Lily Chou-Chou plays broadly with the corruption of innocence idea. The corruption of the Ether (a term used several times in the film) a pretty apt metaphor for the corruption of innocence taking place within the children’s lives. Music is the only escape Yuichi has from his tormentors and the only way he can truly connect with his fellow victims. The text message excerpts from his website explain how easily people fall into the lure and escape of the Ether and the final scenes go a long way to corrupting even this last bastion. Indeed Yuichi is not really a victim in a traditional sense, only suffering one physical abuse at the hands of Hoshino’s gang. More than anything else the damage is done by how he is forced to intergrate into Hoshino’s ever expanding gang, given the menial task of watching over the schoolgirl Hoshino has turned into a prostitute.

The film offers no real answers to the problems of bullying and to expect it to would be rather moronic. What it does is paint a real picture of what it is like to be a victim of a bully and how innocuous and random their dislike can be. The overall message is rather distressing; the film seems to revel in unilateral action as the only way to fight against bullying. As such suicide, self sacrifice, and murder are the only solutions the victims are left with. Whilst the film seems to drift toward melodrama at points, the rape scene and the fate of a girl doomed to be a child escort both feel perhaps a little detached from the general narrative, the effect of the Digital Photography always grounds it at least in a facsimile of reality.

That is the odd dichotomy at work in All About Lily Chou-Chou its ethereal elegance matched with material that is indicting in its reality. It is a tale that is both supremely stylised and at times hyper real. It is a film that is utterly shocking and morally depressing but that is also lyrically beautiful and bursting with colour and vitality. Every technical aspect is remarkably polished even the fictional score by Lily Chou-Chou is the kind of music that is enrapturing and alluring and it all works to make the impact of the film even more brutal.

Spike’s Classics: Once Upon A Time In China 1 and 2

Posted in Asian Cinema, Movies, Review with tags , , , on April 18, 2008 by Spike Marshall

Once Upon A Time In China

Theme of Wong Fei Hung

Wong Fei Hung was born in 1847 and his century spanning life would earn him a place in the Chinese national identity as well as immortality in the hearts and minds of all fans of Kung Fu cinema. Fictional versions of Wong Fei Hung have appeared in over a hundred movies including undisputed classics such as Drunken Master, The Magnificent Butcher, Iron Monkey and of course Last Hero in China. But the standout Wong Fei Hung films are Tsui Hark’s Once Upon A Time In China Series.

Tellingly these films are simply known as Wong Fei Hung in China and that is fitting as the series probably offers what can only be viewed as the definitive fictional Wong Fei Hung experience.

Starting off with a lion dance which is saved from ruin by Fei Hung the pace of the film is stately. While there is a wealth of spectacular fight scenes a lot of the films two and a bit hour running time is given over to character moments.

Jet Li, just returning from a disastrous first attempt at cracking the overseas market, was something of a strange choice for the major role of Fei Hung. But the three time Wushu champion proved that the gamble was one of Tsui Hark’s wisest moves as he personified the role completely.

Indeed even if it weren’t for Li’s incredible prowess as a martial artist he would have still seemed a natural choice given how much raw charisma and charm he gave to a character who often was played a little too harsh. He gave Fei Hung the discipline and conviction he needed without the austere edge some of his predecessors had given the role and ultimately created a character that had a wonderful vibrancy and humanity.

The plot of Once Upon A Time in China is rather simple and yet very rewarding. China has effectively been invaded by westerners who have been granted immunity by the government. As China slowly becomes more westernised Wong Fei Hung finds himself increasingly powerless against the guns of the new visitors. Kung Fu is no match for bullets and old masters are reduced to performing in the streets for scraps.

Aside from a plot involving slave trading and a vicious gang the story is centred almost entirely around the conflict between new and old, and later the conflict between Wong Fei Hung and Iron Robe Yim (a stately and masterful performance from Yee Kwan Yan).

Fei Hung is joined by a cadre of supporters who are probably the film’s weakest elements. The two members of his school the film focuses on Butcher Wing and Buck Tooth So while adding something to the narrative, So propelling the narrative Wing demonstrating Fei Hung’s respect amongst his students, seem underdeveloped.

The third most interesting character of the film is Foon (played by underappreciated martial arts legend Yuen Biao) an actor who finds himself in the service of Iron Robe Yim even though his respect lies with Fei Hung and his heart with Fei Hung’s 13th Aunt (Rosamund Kwan).

Speaking of 13th Aunt while on first appraisal I found her character to be a little shoe horned in to provide Fei Hung with the hint of a romance I have grown to like her character more in recent viewings. She effectively serves as another counterpoint between Fei Hung and modern china and her scene with Fei Hung help to bring a touch of humanity to a character who can be hard to sympathise with.

The film is beautiful to look at with handsome cinematography, incredible sets, and some expertly staged fights. In fact Once Upon A Time In China has two of my favourite celluloid fights. The two encounters between Fei Hung and Yim are incredible works of choreography and showcase the aesthetic sensibility that makes Tsui Hark one of my favourite directors.

The first fight shot in the pouring rain is just a fantastical exchange of blows between the two masters. It is a stunning piece of filmwork and even the more unbelievable elements are granted a grounding in reality simply due to the intensity and emotion of the battle.

The second battle is much more of a showy piece and is essentially one protracted duel, with a small intermission in the middle, which uses ladders to take the fight vertically as well as horizontally. The fight is again awe inspiring to watch, the perfect combination of natural psychical prowess and newer wire methods.

But what makes Once Upon A Time in China so special are not the fights but the way the characters are handled. Despite taking a role as antagonist Iron Robe Yim is a very sympathetic character, an honourable man driven to desperation when his masterful skills become outdated.

Once Upon A Time In China 2

Once Upon A Time in China was an incredible movie, mixing interesting human characters (played by Kung Fu legends) with wondrous cinematography and incredible fight choreography. How do you follow up such a film? Apparently you enlist Wushu wonderkid Donnie Yen and master action director Yuen Woo Ping and combine with a plot that has dashes of Temple of Doom.

Once Upon a Time In China 2 opens in the bowels of a temple as a young girl chants the chorus of the White Lotus group. The White Lotus is a fanatically xenophobic sect who follows their leader on a brutal purge of all western influences. We are introduced to the leader right at the start of the film as he and his followers eat fire, roll around in fire, and take gunshots to the chest.

While it’s easy to assume at this point that the temple leader is going to be another shade of grey villain in a series that is fervently nationalistic it becomes quickly clear that the White Lotus are just straight villains, a fact proved within minutes when a Dalmatian is ordered to be immolated for the simple crime of being western.

While there are a few moments of symmetry between Fei Hung and the White Lotus group, the famous Wong Fei Hung theme actually fades in and uses the same basic beat as the White Lotus group’s theme, it is apparent that The White Lotus group are inherently villainous.

The main plot structure is once again fairly simple. Wong Fei Hung, 13th Aunt and new apprentice Foon (no longer played by Yuen Biao despite the character actually having things to do this time round) arrive in Canton to attend a medical seminar and attract the unwanted attention of the White Lotus group during a march. Despite his efforts to not get involved Fei Hung finds himself drawn into the conflict and ultimately galvanised to act after witnessing a massacre at a school for learning foreign languages.

While the central plot is relatively straightforward the secondary plot involving General Lan’s (Donnie Yen) plot to find and detain a duo of revolutionaries seems to be added to just give the film a second climactic fight. In fact the second plot’s relation to the main film is quite suspect in that it seems entirely separate from everything else that is happening, barring perhaps a few scenes involving the revolutionaries.

While the secondary plot does seem somewhat shoehorned in it does allow for the inclusion of two of the finest fights in the film, and perhaps in the series. The two encounters between Fei Hung and Lan are both explosive and precise showcasing the raw energy and charisma that both stars have. In fact the climactic battle while lacking the sheer poetry of the ladder fight from its predecessor is a raw and visceral experience which has its own fair share of tricks. While at times it seemed that Fei Hung and Iron Robe Yim were merely sparring with each other the fatal intent in the Lan/Fei Hung duels is never less than clear.

Yuen Woo Ping does a fine job in crafting fights which are both intricate and heavy hitting. In fact the penultimate duel handled by anyone else could have been a mess of wire fu antics. But in Yuen Woo Ping’s hand the rather esoteric fight in which Fei Hung and the White Lotus leader battle for dominance of a series of impromptu altars is granted a near poetic feel. While it transcends the barriers of believability there is something awe inspiring about the sheer ingenuity to create the fight using little more than practical effects and two able martial artists.

Despite some seriously impressive fight choreography where Once Upon A Time In China 2 shines is in Tsui Hark’s desire to experiment as a filmmaker. While he has always been good at conveying grandeur and emotion in this film he starts to experiment with ideas not seen before in his movies. The most noticeable thing is the montage sequence that takes place near the end of the first act which demonstrates the White Lotus attacks throughout the city. However there are other things which are refreshingly different such as Aunt Yee’s shadow dancing during a training session, the way the camera moves instead of keeping the stately but stoic stance of the previous film, and the use of unnatural lighting (such as in the temple scenes at the end).

In the end Once Upon A Time in China 2 is probably a far more accessible film than its predecessor simply because the line between good and evil is more distinct. The foreigners are still an effete bunch of ne’er-do-wells but the bad guys are definitely evil and lack any of the sympathy Iron Robe Yim was given. The movie is good fun, has an interesting plot, some incredible action scenes, and a good dose of humour (probably the best integrated in all the series). The only problem for me lies with the fact that Fei Hung is given a harsher and gruffer persona than he was in Once Upon A Time In China and at times the master seems almost petulant.

In many ways it surpasses the original and is far more inventive but a lack of emotional resonance in the conflict means that Once Upon A Time In China 2 is a smidgen less than its prequels equal.

Spike’s Classics: In The Mood For Love

Posted in Asian Cinema, Movies, Review, Spike's Classics with tags , , on March 24, 2008 by Spike Marshall

Poster for In The Mood for LoveExcerpts from the Score

In the Mood for Love was the western breakthrough for Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai. While his earlier works had enjoyed some success, In The Mood for Love managed to break through into mainstream, a rare task indeed for a film that was both foreign and dealt with themes and ideas that were not particularly mainstream material.

What is even more surprising about the film’s success is that aside from its stunning design there is nothing that could be classed as a hook, nothing that on paper would interest a western audience. The fact of the matter is that despite the very alien setting and culture the story of two hurt people seeking solace from each other is a universal tale.

chan.jpgWhat makes the film so compelling is the chemistry between the two leads. Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung, both Kar-Wai regulars, playing Chow and Chan deliver beautifully restrained yet emotive performances. These central performances serve as an anchor for the film that at times does drift into being overly ponderous.

However these ponderous moments help showcase Kar-Wai’s skill as a director and Christopher Doyle’s extraordinary talent as a cinematographer. Every shot of the film is beautiful, the lens telling us everything that Chan and Chow cannot admit to each other.

chow.jpgIt is easy to see why many people view In The Mood for Love as Kar-Wai’s strongest film. It is a film of regal majesty, beautifully judged and shot with the tenderness and care only a director with a definitive vision could. Dialogue and plot are largely thrown away to instead focus on composition and overall mood. The characters speak to each other a lot but they never truly communicate on a verbal level.

The film is simply astonishing to look at and taken as stills each frame could be seen as a work of art. But it is only when the still image coalesces with other elements that the sheer magic of the film is allowed to flourish.

The use of slow motion is perhaps the more memorable element of the film, long thoughtful takes with the haunting string based score providing the only sound as the characters go about their daily routine.

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It is the mastery of these elements that makes the film so successful. On its own the cinematography would be great, but when combined with the wondrously emotive score, inspired costume design, use of space, and breathtaking set design In The Mood for Love becomes a modern masterpiece.

In a lot of ways In The Mood for Love plays like a modern fairytale. It mixes realistic themes and notions with an almost dreamlike production sense. Everything that the characters do feels real, but the world they inhabit is like a stylised painting. From the swirls of luxurious smoke that emerge from Chow’s cigarettes, to the delicate dresses that Chan wears everything in the film has a hint of unreality to it. They exist in a place that is designed down to the smallest detail, a meticulously crafted stage to showcase the characters.

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Wong Kar-Wai trusts his audience to make links and figure out plot points with minimal guidance and the general ambiguity of the end scenes is perhaps the greatest indication of this. In the Mood for Love is a difficult film in a lot of ways because it does require active participation by the audience. They have to work out what is going on largely for themselves and a lot of the emotional payoff comes from having a general investment in the characters.

Kar-Wai creates this audience participation right from the start with the moving scenes. We are shown Chan’s meeting with the landlady and agreement to move in, we are then introduced to Chow who asks for the same room, he is denied but told a room is going next door, we see him knock at the door and then the scene shifts to the moving stage with no interaction between Chow and his landlady. Then after the moving scene we are shown the couples happily moved in. It is this collection of scenes that prepares the audience for Kar-Wai’s shorthand storytelling technique and also forces the audience to pay attention to what is going on.

partners.jpgThe camera tells the story more than the characters themselves, this is especially true of scenes involving the spouses of Chow and Chan. Both partners do appear on screen but you only ever see their backs. You hear their voices and there is interaction between the two couples but the errant partners are for the most part ciphers which allows for the audience to easily make a connection between Chow and Chan.

In one early scene we see Chan get taken away from her husband’s side by Chow’s wife, leaving the room closely followed by Chow himself. It is also worth noting that this is the first of the slow motion scenes that take place throughout the film. It could be argued that the specific use of music and filming style could indicate a certain displacement for both characters as the technique is used again when they both make their jaunts down to the rice sellers. While the music itself is pretty and the cinematography stunning the scenes are in a way almost tragic, people accepting their fate and just getting on with what they have to do.

It is also interesting to note that the internal geography of the sets is used to reinforce another key element of the movie. Chow and Chan can never be together, they are still too tied to their partners and too meek to leave. In the first half of the movie, before the discovery of infidelity, the two characters are separated at all times by shot composition. They rarely appear in the same shot together until the restaurants scene and a lot of communication is done while focused on one character, with the other off screen. This same use of geography is put to use again, and rather more obviously, during the last act where the two characters are sat back to back against a wall, both listening to the same thing but both worlds apart.

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The two characters also do not start off in love with each other. Both characters are very much in love with their spouses and as such the conversations between Chow and Chan are very genial. In fact in one early scene Chan is walking up a flight of stairs and turns past Chow, neither character seemingly interested or aware of each others presence. When both characters start to realise the truth they become more interested each other, the scene on the stairs is repeated but this time with both characters exchanging glances.

In the Mood for Love does not start out as a love story it evolves into one. The primary focus of the second act, after the infidelity is discovered, is about the burgeoning friendship between Chow and Chan. They don’t bond because they are in love they bond because they are both displaced by their partner’s adultery. They both just want to know what happened and how it happened, how their partners were lured by someone else.

li-zhen-rests.jpgThey become allies not in a bid for vengeance but in a quest for understanding. They are never overtly angry at their partners, they just accept that their own actions drove them apart. Chow and Chan’s relationship is mutually supportive despite the wildly different courses of actions they both take. Chow feels tied down by marriage and takes the infidelity as a chance for freedom he pursues his dream of writing and moves away from the apartment, Chan however still has feelings for her husband and uses Chow as a way to understand what happened and a way to rehearse her inevitable reconciliation. Even when they are trapped together there is a gulf between them, Chow and Chan seemingly occupying wildly different sections of the same room.

It is only after spending time together that Chow starts to feel something for Chan and he knows that he cannot separate her from her husband. Because he can never have her he instead flees from the situation ending up in Singapore and later Cambodia. When he travels back to Hong Kong he is presented with an opportunity to see Chan again but turns it down. In the end he knows that their moments of friendship and gentle love can never be revisited and as such he buries his feelings away, never to be known again.

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In the Mood for Love like many of Kar-Wai’s movies explores the many facets of love that exist. It is not a story about a passionate romance, that is more the partner’s story, but instead a look at reconciliation and the sacrifices people make for each other.

Cinema Obscura: Exiled

Posted in Asian Cinema, Cinema Obscura, Movies, Review with tags , , , on March 22, 2008 by Spike Marshall

Exiled PosterTo my infinite shame I only have a cursory knowledge of the cinema of Johnnie To, Exiled being the fourth film I have seen by the much vaunted director. I’ve always intended to see more of his films, but for whatever reason Hong Kong’s current auteur has been ridiculously poorly represented in this country.

Despite wide spread acclaim for his films, it was only until recently that you could obtain any of his films in this country aside from his duelling assassins movie Fulltime Killer which was in relation to the rest of his work a creative nadir.I first encountered the work of To when one of his films was shown on British television at some ridiculous hour in the morning. The movie in question would be The Mission, a film which still doesn’t have a proper DVD release (either in Europe or in Hong Kong) despite nearly a decade having passed since it was released.

The Mission would tell the story of a disparate group of professionals hired to protect a gangland boss. At the time I was in the midst of discovering Asian Cinema and in particular the balletic combat exemplified by the work of John Woo. As such I went into The Mission expecting the same kind of over the top gunplay and histrionics, what I got was instead a perfect representation of To’s methodology.

Still from a shoot out in ExiledThe Mission is a film which is conceptually an action film, but uses its action set pieces as a way of contextualising its main characters. To is far more interested in the divergent dynamics within his group of bodyguards and the moments of gunplay, characterised by an eerie stillness rather than the usual Hong Kong acrobatics, just serve as punctuation for his characters. Exiled takes a similar tact and in a lot of ways works as a thematic sequel to The Mission.

The film opens with knocking on a door, a pair of well dressed men asking the startled occupant if Mr. Wo is in. They are told that no one named Wo lives their and they promptly decamp to a nearby square. The process is repeated when two more men arrive, receiving exactly the same response and taking position in the same square.

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This opening, with its minimal dialogue, sets the tone of the film completely. Exiled is essentially a spaghetti western transposed to the Macau of 1998. The ambience and framing are perfect reproductions, even borrowing Leone patented headshots for the introduction of the characters. Even the scenery lends itself to this Spaghetti Western feel, with Macau being a Portuguese colony just about to be handed back to China. As such the streets are sun drenched and lined with pearly white villas which give a flavour of Mexico.

Blaze from ExiledThe four men are looking for Wo for different reasons, two of them Blaze and Fat are here to kill him by the order of Boss Fay. Tai and Cat, the other two men are here to protect Wo. The two teams stand watching each other, smoking cigars and waiting for Wo to return home. Wo’s wife stares nervously out of the window as she awaits the chaos her husband’s arrival will cause.

When the action does kick off, Wo’s attempts to slink back home being noticed by both Tai and Blaze, the film showcases a wrinkle on the To formula. To’s earlier films are best exemplified by their meditative, Zen like, depictions of action. Exiled maintains a sense of this stillness, the slow build up to the fracas involves Wo methodically loading his revolver as Tai and Blaze inexplicably shed bullets from their ammo clips, but the action itself is heightened to a point of near ridiculousness. The resultant gun battle in Wo’s home ends with two of the gunfighters shooting a wooden door through the air at each other as outside Cat shoots an empty can which flies dramatically at an on looking police officer.

The gunfight only ends when Wo’s wife appears holding Wo’s month old son, the hitmen and bodyguards deciding to cease fire and instead talk about the situation. The four men proceed to repair Wo’s broken home, fixing broken mirrors, filling in the bullet holes in doors, and generally returning everything to a state of order. The wrinkle in the plot is that all five men have known each other since they were kids, Wo and Tai falling foul of their previous employer after a botched assassination attempt. The five men decide to try and raise some money for Wo’s family; unfortunately this job forces them afoul of their deliriously malicious employer Boss Fay.

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That is about as much plot as I am willing to go into, because detailing anymore would just be a waste of time. Needless to say the five men find themselves drifting from action set piece to action set piece as they try and work out how to survive a dual assault from their previous employer and a local mob boss. Like The Mission the gunplay in the film only serves as punctuation for the characters, it is that which galvanises and informs them as people more than anything else. Whilst The Mission makes this point clear by having the action staged in a cool and detached manner Exiled takes a different approach and heightens the action to a point where it becomes almost a parody of itself.

There are some moments of genuine viciousness of the film, all perpetrated by Boss Fay, but the general rule of the action scenes is detachment. Each gun battle is superbly orchestrated, with a genuinely suspenseful build up proceeding three of the four major fracases in the film, but it is a means to an end within the film. The movie is far more concerned with the internal dynamics of the group, with Blaze and Tai trying to manoeuvre around each other to obtain their goals.

fay-and-blaze.pngBlaze is the star of the show and is played with typical aplomb by the always great Anthony Wong. Blaze becomes the defacto leader of the group and the focus of Boss Fay’s anger and malevolence. He is a classic unwilling hero, growling at those who ask for his opinion before finally interjecting with the correct course of action. There is a real conflict within the character, a part of him wanting to stay the course and do his job and the part which knows he can’t possibly kill his childhood friend and this internal confusion makes him dominate any scene he is in.

The other members of the team are never given quite as much to work with, but slot naturally into their roles. Fat and Cat are two characters with very little to contribute to the story, but who are made important facets of the film due to exuberant performances from Lam Set and Roy Cheung respectively. Tai exists as the emotional core of the group, the gangster who has let his heart rule his head and the ever reliable Francis Ng does a fantastic job of dividing audience sympathies between his character and Anthony Wong’s Blaze.

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The standout of the cast is Simon Yam who gives a performance as Boss Fay that is both hilarious and terrifying. He is a truly loathable character, but he is played with so much energy and passion that you can’t help but grow to like him a little.


The cast are all Johnnie To regulars and as such it allows them to naturally fit into the vision of the film. Exiled is an ambient piece more than anything, mood, tone and atmosphere being its main components. What the actors do is become part of the tone and mood and as such it all becomes a homogenous product. Simon Yam is a perfect example of this, usually a fairly restrained and toned down actor he understands the need for a big and charismatic villain in the film and completely cuts loose. He becomes a part of the films tone and sets up a genuine external threat to the team by embracing the heightened thematics of the film.

What these actors also allow To to do is focus on the aesthetic elements of the film. Exiled is a film that just radiates style and cool and it is all down to the visual choices that To makes. The violence in the film is naturally heightened and To amplifies this by making each bullet wound explode in clouds of red mist. It is an unusual choice but within the framework of the film it is a choice that makes perfect sense. It allows the bloodshed to standout from the luminously beautiful backgrounds he stages his fights in.

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Exiled is a superlatively beautiful film at times, shot with the kind of care and precision you’d usually only expect from a piece of arthouse cinema. Macau makes a good playground for To’s camera, the aesthetic of the country itself fitting the breezy and stylised nature of Exiled perfectly. The spaghetti western tone of the film is helped immensely by a playful soundtrack incorporating harmonics, panpipes and guitars.

cop.pngBut for all of the auditory and visual tricks To uses the core of Exiled is still decidedly simple. It is a film purely about the bond between men, the unwritten code of brotherhood and this simplicity and allows the different elements of the film to mesh together as a fantastic whole.

Zatoichi Meets The Internet Blogging Scene

Posted in Asian Cinema, Movies, Review, Samurai with tags , , on March 17, 2008 by Spike Marshall

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Excerpts from the OST

The Zatoichi films are what you could class as a cinematic phenomenon, a series that would sustain twenty six original movies, nearly one hundred episodes of a television show, and a modern re-imagining. The eponymous hero, played in all but the latest film by Shintaro Katsu, would become a national institution and would go on to inspire countless movies, television shows and videogames.

What I’m going to do in this post is talk about four of these films, three movies from the original series and finally Takeshi Kitano’s entry in the series. The films selected do not offer the best of the series, but instead showcase the different dynamics and talents involved in the continuing success of the series.

Just a quick note on images. My copies of the older films are by ArtsMagic, who are pretty much the worst DVD distributors in the world. As such my copies of Zatoichi at Large and Meets Yojimbo were so bad as to not allow me to screencap them. Thankfully somebody screencapped the much superior R1 version of Meets Yojimbo for me, but unfortunately I’ve had to use non related images for Zatoichi At Large.

Zatoichi at Large (1972)

Despite being one of the last entries in the original Zatoichi series and being in the middle chronologically of the five films I’m looking at, Zatoichi at Large is probably the best place to start this post. Despite being film number twenty three in the twenty six movie original production run, Zatoichi at Large represents a back to basics approach for the series. As such it is a pared down story and offers perhaps the best entry point for the series.

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I’d assume the demographic for this blog will already be familiar with Zatoichi, seen as popular and iconic Takeshi Kitano’s 2003 re-imagining of the series was. For those unfamiliar with the character all you need to understand is that Zatoichi is a blind masseur with extraordinary fighting skills. Using his enhanced hearing he fights in a reactive and almost supernatural manner utilising a sword hidden in his cane to dispatch numerous foes with terrifying ease. Despite maintaining the appearance of a begrudging hero Zatoichi roams Japan moving from town to town rooting out injustice.

Zatoichi at Large starts with our man stumbling across a dying pregnant woman, offering his services as a midwife and helping in delivery of the soon to be dead woman’s baby. Zatoichi at Large was the second Zatoichi film I ever saw, my first foray being Kitano’s film, and this scene destroyed any preconceptions I had about the original series. I knew that the latest Zatoichi film was viewed as being almost a parody of the older films, and as such I was expecting something brooding and serious from the Katsu movies. What this opening scene does is detail the broad humour which is a constant undercurrent in the older films, a weird mixture of physical comedy and dry wit.

zatoichi10.pngKatsu’s Zatoichi is a quite remarkable piece of characterisation, humble, world weary and scatterbrained whilst maintaining an air of lethality. With twenty two films to master the character it’s not surprising that Katsu fits so well into the role, but it is still impressive to see such a well honed performance in a series which is essentially the James Bond of East Asia. Katsu obviously has a lot of fondness for Zatoichi and he imbibes the character with a real humanity.

Zatoichi at Large also represents the film where Zatoichi is subjugated the most, his spectacular swordplay only coming into play after nearly an hour and fifteen minutes of being toyed with and tortured by his surprisingly low rent enemies. The villains of Zatoichi are an odd bunch, an unspectacular bunch of Yakuza who pale in comparison to the multitudes Zatoichi had slaughtered in previous movies. If the Zatoichi films are an analogue to James Bond then this is the Casino Royale of the series, with an emphasis shifted to the main character and the villains just used as context.

Even if the villains aren’t particularly impressive, the swordplay used to dispatch them holds up. Despite a dearth of actual combat, there are some truly great scenes of Zatoichi showcasing his particular talents. Of note is his disarming of two yakuza, forcing their swords into a mat before sending the mat into the air and slicing it in twain in one continuous movement. It is the kind of iconic moment the series is famous for, and it showcases the moral ethos that Zatoichi stands by. Unlike contemporary Japanese characters like Lady Snowblood’s Yuki or Lonewolf and Cub’s Ogami Itto, Zatoichi doesn’t seek to cause harm. He is more content to intimidate and generally only kills in defence or as a last option. Zatoichi At Large highlights this fact by having Zatoichi seriously hurt by the accusations of murder a small boy hounds him with.

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Of course this squeamishness towards violence doesn’t last forever, with an extended torture sequence carried out on our hero ensuring that none of the villains are going to live past the final scene. The final battle, which encapsulates the last fifteen minutes of the film, is an odd affair, with an army apparently materialising out of thin air to give Zatoichi adequate cannon fodder for a fight which rips through the yakuza’s hideout, into the local forest and climaxes on a burning stage. The fights in Zatoichi at Large avoid the arterial spray and severed limbs of many samurai films, and instead operate on an almost expressionistic level. Zatoichi is a reactive fighter, and his strikes are often only registered by the sound of ripping on the soundtrack, his bested foe freezing in position before lurching to the ground dead.

There is an ethereal majesty to the fights which are never really replicated in other films, the aesthetic making even a small fracas seem epic and exciting.

Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo (1970)

zatoichi-meets-yojimbo_05p.jpgFrom one of the leanest Zatoichi films to one of the most convoluted ones. Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo has our hero caught in the middle of a family feud, only this isn’t a family feud which leads to awkward silences at the dinner table, this is a family feud which leads to Samurai Warfare.

Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo also casts as our hero as a more intellectual figure, whereas his swordsmanship resolved his problems in Zatoichi At Large his intelligence allows him to take charge of the situation in this film. As such we only see him draw his sword once or twice in the films near two hour running time, his role more agent provocateur than anything else. The majority of the slice and dice action is left to the titular bodyguard of the piece played by the legendary Toshiro Mifune. Recalling his iconic role in Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo Mifune is outstandingly magnetic and proves to be a worthy equal to Katsu.

The film follows Zatoichi as he finds himself aggrieved by his current situation; a rain soaked opening forcing him to recall fond memories of a peaceful village he visited a few years back. Fatigued by his current lot in life he endeavours to travel back to this village where the smell of plums is in the air and brooks babble in a pleasing manner. Of course being a Zatoichi movie our titular hero is not allowed a relaxing holiday and even the path leading up to the village suggests that all is not well. In a bit of dark comedy Zatoichi slowly follows the path remarking on the sound of wind and babbling brooks with an air of joyous calm, unaware of the dead bodies all around him.

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The central plot of the film is a variant on Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, with gang warfare splitting a village in two. Whilst the conflicting factions are more covert than their brutal counterparts in Yojimbo, the central thrust remains the same with both Zatoichi and the yojimbo, named Sasa, manipulating their respective factions for their own gain. As the plot expands to include government mints, a fortune in siphoned gold and psychotic secret agents the scope of the film increases. All of this is handled with consummate ease by director Kihachi Okamoto who happens to be one of my favourite Japanese directors. Okamoto is responsible for some truly great samurai films, obvious examples being the seminal Sword of Doom and Samurai Assassin.

Okamoto is probably one of the most proficient directors to work on the Zatoichi films and his talents as a filmmaker allow for a movie that is grander and more cinematic than anything that had come before. There is a scope and grace to the film that just marks it as a quality product, the only problem is that this cinematic mastery combined with Mifune’s dominating performance almost makes the film not seem like part of the Zatoichi series.

Zatoichi and Sasa share divergent story paths, and subsequently divide screen time between themselves. Zatoichi, in his trademark fashion, is rather oblique with his motivations, choosing to stay in the village for his own unknowable reasons. Sasa has been hired by the delinquent son of the merchant who now runs the village. Both men employ similar tactics, underplaying their skills by playing the part of a cripple and a wastrel. Sasa, much to the chagrin of his employer, is reluctant to act and quick to drink, lounging around and trading information to his employer for monetary gain. It is only when presented with people to kill and a proper incentive to do so that he shows his true colours, his sword work matching Zatoichi’s in its power and precision.

Hired to kill the blind Masseur, Sasa has an unusual relationship with Zatoichi, following an initial encounter in which Zatoichi channels a killing stab back into a scabbard the two squabble like children in a playground. Mifune’s an old hand at this kind of childish bravado and as such his character’s spats with Zatoichi are generally hilarious.

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A problem that many will have with the film is its deliberate pacing, it is a good half hour longer than most Zatoichi films and Okamoto is renowned for his focused and determined pacing. At least ninety minutes of the film are just initial set up, with Zatoichi doing very little in action terms. Like all Okamoto films the focus is on characters and plotting and people wanting a visceral bloodbath are going to start getting a little antsy. Indeed despite excellent characters the film plots itself into a rut, which then requires a new catalyst to be introduced in the form of a pistol toting government agent.

The last twenty minutes of the film see the carefully set up plot reach its conclusion and offer us our glimpse of Zatoichi doing what he does, although even this is marginalised compared to the combat we see Sasa take part in.

The scale of the combat at the end is impressive as the duelling factions finally come to blows, but it all feels a little impersonal with Zatoichi mulching around on the sidelines. But Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo isn’t a film prided on combat, it is not an action film in a traditional sense, it is a samurai film first and foremost. As such it is concerned with character and nuance over stylised combat. It is a diversion from the usual Zatoichi staples, but it is a diversion which proves how adaptable the character is.

Zatoichi (1989)

Shintaro Katsu would take the role of director for his 1989 return to the Zatoichi series. The twenty sixth film in the original series would be simply called Zatoichi and would come after a sixteen year hiatus following 1973’s Zatoichi at the Blood Fest. Not being a historian of Japanese cinema it is hard for me to speculate on exactly why the series had such an abrupt cinematic end, the films segueing into a long TV series starring Shintaro Katsu himself. It is hard to tell if this move into TV was due to flagging profits for the films or if there was demand for the show in new media. Certainly the fact the TV show lasted four seasons and had close onto a hundred episodes suggests that the reasons for the move to TV weren’t because of fatigue with the character.

It could also be that with the arrival of the Hanzo the Razor and Lone Wolf and Cub series (both produced by Katsu himself, with Lone Wolf and Cub having Katsu’s brother star as the titular anti-hero) the Zatoichi films found themselves outdated. The expressionistic combat and morality of the Zatoichi films would be displaced by the brutal violence, sexual pervasiveness and morally questionable anti heroes of these films, in short the Zatoichi films would suddenly seem very tame. Expanding on a previous analogy it is interesting to note that the James Bond films would find themselves in a similar situation towards the end of the 1980s, a new crop of American action cinema detoothing the series and forcing the series to adapt, unsuccessfully, to the new style.

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Despite this ignominious end the James Bond series would be resurrected to great acclaim and success, its new run producing five major films and revitalizing interest in the series. The Zatoichi series would end on a high note, Blood Fest regarded as a pinnacle of the series, and yet its comeback would yield a single film. This single film would effectively kill the series, casting a critical eye on the preceding movies and giving tonal closure to the character. Katsu’s interpretation of Zatoichi may have been intended as homage to the older entries in the series, its set pieces a hodge podge of ideas and scenes from the other movies, but it came across as a creatively bankrupt pastiche. If the ‘best of’ elements of Zatoichi make the film seem like a last hurrah, Katsu’s portrayal of the titular character gives the movie the feel of a wake.

The film opens with Zatoichi incarcerated in a prison for political prisoners. Right from the opening scene there is an overriding bleakness to the film. We’ve seen Zatoichi humbled before, but there’s a melancholy to this opening scene which makes it quietly discomforting. This is not abuse that will lead to Zatoichi breaking free and extolling his wrath on his captors, this is institutionalised abuse that will never go punished. This is the reality of being a blind man in samurai era Japan. Zatoichi’s blindness is an important factor in this film. Whereas in previous films it was simply a means to an end, a disability to add context to his incredible skill, in this movie it is a defining part of the character. We hear Zatoichi talk about losing his sight, about the impact it has had on him and there is a true sense of tragedy.

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This forlorn and sullen aspect of the character is a key element of the film, even on a physical level the Zatoichi of this film is a shell of his former self. Greying, old and bulbous the character is well past his prime and the focus on the implications of his blindness do lots to make us suddenly empathise with a character who was always superhuman. The other films never showed a Zatoichi that was this helpless, that was this fragile and it almost works to deconstruct the character. It is only when the trademark Zatoichi violence kicks in that we’re reminded of the intent of the film.

Zatoichi is probably the most violent film in the entire series, with at least half a dozen fights totting up close onto a hundred victims. Zatoichi is continually assaulted at the behest of his nemesis, a young and ambitious gangster, and as such is given plenty of opportunities to showcase his amazing skill. The fight scenes are all direct lifts from other films, lifting and enhancing previously used ideas in homage to the series. What is interesting is that Katsu injects some of the nastiness from the films he produced into the film and as such we’re treated to a Zatoichi film covered in blood, with decapitations, amputations, burnings, guttings and limb breaking all filmed in meticulous gory detail.

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Katsu proves an able director, his use of composition and natural lighting creating images which are at times surprisingly beautiful. In fact his aesthetic seems to have influenced more modern Samurai films and it easier to equate this film with modern works like The Hidden Blade rather than the older movies which inspired it. Katsu has a keen sense of framing and a natural understanding of light and shadow and it creates a movie which looks legitimately lovely.

But exciting fights and beautiful cinematography aren’t everything and Zatoichi falters due to a storyline which is intricately set up and then never goes anywhere. Certainly the idea of Zatoichi having to deal with two ruthless and young and well equipped gangsters would create an enrapturing story, but Zatoichi never really interacts with his enemies in a meaningful manner. They simply want him dead due to his reputation, as such there is no real connection between the two parties and subsequently it feels like two movies running parallel rather than a linked product.

This disparity is apparent throughout the film, even the use of violence in the film varies greatly from initially being brutishly shocking to becoming standard visceral entertainment. Certainly it is hard to reconcile the innate nastiness of an initial wrestling match, Zatoichi breaking a man’s arm in horrifying and methodical detail, with the glorious and kinetic action set piece that rounds out the film.

Despite the fact that Zatoichi ends with the masseur continuing his wandering the film is effectively the end of the series. By this point we’ve been shown a Zatoichi who is old and tired and we’ve also seen the introduction of an element that would shape countless Samurai films. Guns play an important part in Zatoichi; whilst firearms aren’t used in any of the action set pieces there use in the plot marks the end of Zatoichi. The film ends with the beginning of the age of the gun, an age where Zatoichi’s prenatural skills will be of no use.

The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi (2003)

zatoichi.jpgTakeshi Kitano was an odd choice for a reinterpretation for Zatoichi, largely because Kitano had cut his directorial teeth on esoteric gangster dramas. Sonatine, Boiling Point, and Hana-Bi were all fantastic films but didn’t showcase anything which would aid in the creation of a new Zatoichi film. In fact the closest Kitano had got to Zatoichi was a sketch on one of his comedy shows in which a Zatoichi type character fought off numerous attackers with various weapons including a babies nappy. The two facets of Kitano both seemed unsuitable for the project. His serious work was far too abstract and esoteric for a good fit with the material and his comedy work was far too broad for anything other than a slapdash parody. Yet somehow Takeshi Kitano made a film which appears to be a fitting tribute to the series.

Taking the role of director and star Kitano infuses his own style into the movie almost from the off. There is an odd dichotomy working within the movie, with the film acting as a pastiche and a springboard for Kitano’s own ideas. All the elements you’d expect from Zatoichi are there, yakuzas, swordplay, a silent end duel with a rival swordsman, even broad slapstick comedy, but they’re all infused with Kitano’s own style. The opening scene sets up as homage to the old Zatoichi films with a gang of Yakuza coming upon the blind masseur on a roadside. Paying a kid to steal his sword they promptly mock Zatoichi upon obtaining his weapon only to be cut down within seconds. It is a classic opening to a Zatoichi film, apart from the fact that when a second Yakuza draws his sword he slices his compatriots arm in two. It is a weird kind of playfulness, but it is playfulness all the same.

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The key difference between this film and the movies which came before is the way in which the character of Zatoichi is utilised. Previous films would focus on Zatoichi as a central protagonist, in this film the plot focuses on peripheral characters with Zatoichi being used as almost a deus ex machina. The main thrust of Zatoichi’s narrative is focused on a pair of parallel storylines. The first concerns a pair of siblings posing as Geishas who are plotting to avenge their murdered family. The second story revolves around a disgraced ronin seeking employment with the local Yakuza. This is perhaps the more traditional of the stories, although it is given extra emphasis by the performance of the always fantastic Tadanobu Asano.

The story of the skilled ronin who is hired to deal with Zatoichi is a prevalent theme in the films and each of the movies in this list has at least an extrapolation on the idea. What The Blind Swordsman does is give extra depth to the character by giving him flashbacks and at certain points allowing an insight into his own POV, a technique used effectively during his confrontation with Zatoichi. His motivation and back story are such that he stops being a skilled cipher and actually becomes a fully fleshed character in his own right. What this does is set up the character as a rival for audience affection with Zatoichi, who is within the context of the movie a surprisingly distanced character.

In fact Zatoichi’s presence in the film, the way in which he isn’t involved with the stories until he has to stack up the bodies, is one of the more peculiar decisions in a film filled with peculiarities. The Blind Swordsman is perhaps the best directed of the entire series, filmed with a truly talented eye and staged with utmost precision and beauty but it is also a film that is intentionally quirky. Zatoichi’s entry into the village is a perfect example of this, his walk along the road scored against the electronica score. It is a mundane if anachronistic scene which introduces the main players, but it also introduces the stylistic tics of Kitano’s film. Towards the end of the scene we see villagers at work, their movements becoming part of the score in a nod to the didactic percussion of films like Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Delicatessen.

zatoichi12.pngThese moments appear infrequently throughout the films runtime and serve to maintain the heightened reality the movie exists in. Kitano’s Zatoichi exists in a world far divorced from the older Zatoichi films, everything from the soundtrack to the style of fighting conflicting with what we know about the series. The fight scenes are brutal affairs, the actions realistic and nasty but countered by blood splatter which has been made to look specifically artificial. The soundtrack, when not having villagers contribute to it, is utterly modern at all times using a variety of instruments and combining them with electronica to create a truly anachronistic score. Even Zatoichi, who despite his talents always had some failings, is somewhat supernatural in his capabilities. His ability to kill heightened to a point where tension is completely removed from the equation.

When in combat Zatoichi is more like a Hollywood monster than anything else, only chasing feudal gangsters instead of drunken teenagers. His final assault on the Yakuza is played almost for comedic effect. He is an unstoppable force of nature in the film, a demon equitable to the likes of Ogami Itto, and it is another way of shifting audience sympathies.

The Blind Swordsman ends with a huge festival, every good major character taking part in a huge tap dance number. The only good character to not appear is Zatoichi, with the show even allowing for the young and old versions of the geishas to make an appearance, and it gives a clue as to how Kitano feels about the character. There is a monstrosity to Zatoichi’s character, an unstoppable, unknowableness that resides at the core of the character. He is always on the outside looking in, his few interactions with people either involving small talk or bloodletting. In a way it is a natural extension of Katsu’s last portrayal of the character, a burnt out old man who had become increasingly vicious with old age.

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But whereas Katsu gave us the raw hurt needed to understand where this sudden aggression had come from. Kitano’s calm and at times happy exterior makes his character seem almost like a sociopath. Less Robin Hood and more Patrick Bateman with a positive ethos. There is a certain devotion paid to the scenes of combat, a morbid fascination which sees kills presented with in loving detail. Whilst Katsu’s film would start to show the reality of violence, Kitano would take it a step further. Certainly watching Zatoichi run his sword down at a spear shaft and cut the unfortunate wielders fingers off is the kind of moment which is both horrifying and thrilling.

Kitano is too intelligent a filmmaker to accidentally make such a troubling protagonist and as such the only way to approach his interpretation is as a critique of Katsu’s creation.

Closing Notions

The four films I’ve picked represent divergent views of the same character. Kazuo Mori would be a director who would help bring Zatoichi into the world, directing the second Zatoichi film in the series and creating a lot of Zatoichi’s iconography. His vision of Zatoichi would create the remissive Zatoichi At Large, a light hearted film which showcased Zatoichi as a humanist. Mori’s Zatoichi was a gentle soul deep down, desperate to help people but haunted by the reality of his deadly skills.

Kihachi Okamoto would take the character and pitch him into the middle of a far more epic and convoluted story. He would showcase a beleaguered Zatoichi, a character tired of killing and desperate for a break from it all. A character that utilises his cunning rather than his sword skill to achieve his goals.

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Shintaro Katsu would bring the most experience to the character having played Zatoichi for fifteen years over twenty five films and four TV series. He would showcase a broken character, a crippled man who had been forced to become vicious to deal with an increasingly vicious world.

Takeshi Kitano would transform the character into something mythical and almost terrifying. A demon of death and destruction, unstoppable and unpredictable.

This divergent views are all the truth of the character and that is what allowed so much to be made from a simple concept. These fractured concepts would fuel twenty seven movies and would allow the character to enrapture both Eastern and Western audiences.