Hello and welcome to the first of what should be a fortnightly column on Asian cinema. This here is something of a trial run so if you’ve got any tips, suggestions, feedback or just want to tell me how much I suck leave me a comment below.
This column’s purpose is to pick and choose from the doings and transpirings in the world of Asian cinema. As such I’m not attempting to summarise everything that happened in the world of Asian cinema, just the stuff that piqued my interest and will hopefully interest you.
China: Wong Kar Wai is one of my favourite directors. He is pretty much a master at this stage and despite a stumble like My Blueberry Nights, whose major sin is that it feels more like a Kar Wai pastiche than the real thing, it is easy to get excited when he has new project on the cards and especially when his new project has an absolutely fascinating trailer. The Grandmasters, due for release in 2012 after a delayed production due to prior commitments by its star Tony Leung, tells the story of Wing Chun practitioner and Chinese national icon Ip Man. Now Donnie Yen was a tour de force in the previous biopic Ip Man so it is going to be interesting to see what Leung brings to the role in lieu of Yen’s sheer physicality. Whilst Leung won’t be able to match up to Yen’s brutal fists of fury he is no slouch when it comes to action cinema, with major roles in a number of Wuxia films in the 1990s and 00s.
This is actually a piece of fairly old news; the trailer debuted in July, but doesn’t seem to have been picked up by many sites. Once again you can see the trailer over at Twitch or see it in much better quality on YouTube. The film definitely seems to have a different tone from Ip Man. Whereas Ip Man was fairly grounded Kar Wai’s The Grandmasters seems to have a more mythical tone, the trailer actually brings to mind a weird mish-mash of 300 and Kung Fu Hustle. Whatever the result Leung is a fantastic leading man, Kar Wai is an amazingly talented director and Ip Man’s story is a fantastic source of inspiration.
Thailand: I think Ong-Bak is poorly paced but generally well made. It looks great, has some fantastic choreography and has a scrappy intensity which helped to establish Tony Jaa, and his knees and elbows of fury, on the international scene. Tom Yum Goong is a film of absolutely spellbinding moments hobbled by incoherent plotting and horrible pacing. Chocolate whilst never hitting the highs of Tom Yum Goong or Ong-Bak came across as a more cohesive picture to me so I’m definitely interested in Prachya Pinkaew’s new film the appropriately titled The Kick.
Beyond Hollywood has the teaser trailer for The Kick, which shows off the Taekwondo skills of its stars and little else. Still the stars look very capable and I’m really interested in a film centred on Taekwondo. In my experience Taekwondo has largely been underrepresented in Kung-Fu cinema. In fact a quick trawl of my memory seems to suggest that the only times I’ve seen Taekwondo on film have been Hwang Jang Lee’s various villainous turns in films like Drunken Master and Snake In Eagle’s Shadow and the absolutely mind-blowing fight between Jackie Chan and Ken Lo at the end of Drunken Master 2. Even Chocolate whose star, Yanin Mitananda, was formally trained in Taekwondo largely avoided focusing on it as a specific martial art. As such The Kick could turn out to be something very interesting; at the very least you know that Pinkaew’s stunt team are going to put their wellbeing at risk.
Korea: British distributor Cine-Asia recently announced the acquisition of two Korean movies. One is The Front Line, a Korean war-set drama which is the South Korean submission for Best Foreign Language Film in the 2012 Oscars. South Korea has consistently failed to have its submissions shortlisted for the Oscars despite fielding such amazing films as Kim Ki-duk’s reflective Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…..And Spring, Joon-ho Bong’s Mother, the delightful (and vaguely Spielbergian) Welcome to Dongmakgol and Taegukgi (Brotherhood) which is one of the best war-films of the last twenty years. Aside from its Oscar contention I know very little about The Front Line other than it has got a fantastic cast headed up by Shin Ha-kyun who people will know as Ryu from Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance.
The other acquisition is something I know a little more about, a period action movie called Arrow: The Ultimate Weapon. Set during times of tension between Korea and Manchu the movie follows a lone Korean bowman taking on the might of the Manchu army with a solitary bow. The trailer promises lots of CGI addled arrow shots and lots of Ramboesque guerrilla warfare. Early word from the Korean press has been overwhelming positive whilst the smatterings of reviews from festival appearances have been equally effusive. I’m not a major fan of Korean action cinema, of the half dozen or so Korean swordplay films I’ve seen only Musa really stuck with me beyond the end credits, but this looks nicely grounded and has an interesting enough central conceit to have piqued my interest.
Cine-Asia has a good track record with their acquisitions so hopefully both films will get proper support and a speedy DVD/Blu-Ray release. To see the trailer for Arrow: The Ultimate Weapon head here, for The Front Line head here.
China: Revenge: A Love Story is a film that has been rattling around my head since I got the chance to see it a month or so ago, a compelling, engaging, contemplative, ultra-violent revenge thriller. It’s a little muddled and has little to say on revenge in comparison to Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance Trilogy but it’s a fantastic effort and I almost jumped for joy when I saw that Twitch had the trailer for the director’s next film, Let’s Go. Well, it’s certainly a departure.
Anime inspired, with a tone that is almost impossible to pin down this appears to be something of a deconstruction of anime clichés. I have no idea if that is actually the case, but I’m assuming the earnestness and over-the-top tone is a deliberate send-up. If it is I wonder if it hews closer to the Kick-Ass or Super style of deconstruction, although the general scope and tone definitely seems to hem closer to Vaughan’s style than Gunn’s. Whatever the intent it looks like it could be fantastic, or at least fantastically entertaining.
Japan: Masaki Kobayashi’s Harakiri isn’t just a great samurai movie; it’s one of the best movies to come out of Japan’s thriving 1960s cinema scene. Based off a novel by Yasuhiko Takiguchi Harakiri tells the story of a ronin seeking to commit ritual suicide on the estate of a prestigious lord. This ronin, played with a calm and thoughtful air by Tatsuya Nakadai, is recounted a tale of how earlier in the year another ronin had made the same request hoping to blackmail the lord into giving him money to leave. The film is perhaps Kobayashi’s masterwork, a searing indictment of the feudal system and a fantastic anti-authoritarian screed. Samurai cinema in the 50s and 60s was often used as a platform for discussing societal problems and Harakiri, despite its 17th Century setting, is an almost timeless morality tale expertly crafted by Kobayashi.
Until recently Harakiri was available in the US as part of the Criterion label and was unavailable in the UK. Monday sees a British Blu-Ray release of the film by the label Masters of Cinema with a Criterion Blu-Ray release following in early October. Masters of Cinema have always been fantastic in they handled their properties, their DVD release of fellow Kobayashi film Kwaidan is sumptuous, and reviews seem to suggest that they have done a sterling job with this transfer. Reviews from thedigitalfix and www.blu-ray.com suggest that both the Criterion and Masters of Cinema releases are worthy additions to the collection.
Japan: Finally anyone who read Nick’s article and saw the trailer for Takeshi Kitano’s new film The Outrage will be pleased to know that it’s getting a British Blu-Ray release in November. I’m a lot more inclined to view Kitano as a visionary director than Nick, fawning over Asian cinema is kind of what I do, but it’s been hard to mount any excitement for a new Kitano project these last few years. I adored the run of films Kitano made between A Scene at the Sea and Zatoichi and whilst Kitano has something of a reputation for making gangster movies I actually loved the projects that were more amiable and more reflective. Films like Sonatine, Kikujiro and Hana-bi showed a director that could adapt and change his tone with consummate ease whilst his take on Zatoichi remains one of my favourite films of the 00s.
However whilst Kitano’s post Zatoichi hasn’t been terrible I’ve found in increasingly insufferable in how self-absorbed and masturbatory it had become. His trio of autobiographical works in particular became an increasing slog as they went on and I confess that I actually gave up halfway through his last film Achilles and the Tortoise. As such it is heartening to see Kitano back in a wheelhouse he’s an old hand with, in this case gangster movies.
Studio-Canal are releasing the Blu-Ray in the UK and their recent hi-definition output has been exemplary (in particular their Blu-Ray of Godard’s Pierrot Le Fou is amazing). It is scheduled for release on 14th November 2011 and British chewers can pre-order here.
So what is Spike’s canon? Well it is a fancy name for what is essentially an essentials list. These are what I view as being part of my own personal canon and they represent films that are great and films that are pivotal, and sometimes films that are both. Despite the academic language this is very much a personal list and should be taken as such.
The Sword of Doom (1966) – d. Kihachi Okamoto
The Players: Tatsuya Nakadai, Yuzo Kayama, Michiyo Aratama, Toshirō Mifune
The Plot: Set in the midst of the Late Tokugawa Shogunate (a period that last from the 1850s to the first half of the 1870s) The Sword of Doom tells the story of a sociopathic and amoral master swordsman named Ryunosuke Tsukue (Tatsuya Nakadai). Ryunosuke is forced to kill his opponent after a non-lethal duel escalates and subsequently leaves his hometown, a trail of bodies left in his wake. Joining up with the Shinsengumi, a Tokugawa era police force, Ryunosuke is confronted by a swordsman who may match his skill, Shimada Toranosuke (Toshirō Mifune).
Spike’s Thoughts: When you talk about Samurai cinema people tend to think of Akira Kurosawa’s band of warriors protecting a village, or the highly charged political aspects of Masaki Kobayashi’s work, or the stoic, studied, form of Kenji Mizoguchi’s oeuvre, or even the modern trilogy of Samurai films by Yoji Yamada. In my view Kihachi Okamoto should belong amongst these luminaries as his Samurai work in the 1960s distilled elements of the Kurosawa aesthetic into films which had the turbulent political subtext of Kobayashi and the classical character work of Mizoguchi. Okamoto never made a film quite as grand as Harakiri or Seven Samurai or Sansho: The Bailiff but his films had a distinct personality and texture and it is this unique texture which makes The Sword of Doom such an arresting experience.
First a little background, The Sword of Doom is a film adaptation of a mammoth novel by Kaizan Nakazato. This novel ran to over a thousand chapters and had been adapted a few times before Okamoto’s attempts. Kihachi Okamoto originally envisioned The Sword of Doom as part of a trilogy of movies which would condense the bulk of the novel. However Okamoto never returned to the material after completing the film and as such the movie ends on something of a cliff-hanger in literal terms.
The ending of the film sees a crazed and mortally wounded Ryunosuke taking on dozens, if not hundreds, of Samurai in a burning geisha house. Outside the geisha house are a trio of characters who all wish to kill Ryunosuke, one of them armed with a gun. The finale ends on a freeze-frame of Ryunosuke in mid-slice, his features twisted and his eyes licked with madness. You could class this as a cliff-hanger, but the film ends with Ryunosuke surrounded by people who want to kill him in a building which is on fire and which has a man with gun, who also wants to kill him, waiting at the door. Essentially what makes the film a cliff-hanger is the lack of observation, basically Ryunosuke is a samurai version of Schrödinger’s cat. Thematically however the final act of The Sword of Doom serves a fitting finale.
One of the key themes of the film is how samurai’s souls are reflected in the way they use their swords. The entire film can be interpreted through a quote by Shimada who intones that;
“The sword is the soul. Study the soul to know the sword. Evil mind, evil sword.”.
This idea is reflected in Ryunosuke and Shimada’s styles of combat. Ryunosuke employs a style in which his guard appears to be lowered, his blade directed towards the ground and his head bowed. Whilst this can be seen as a defensive posture in actuality it is designed as a trap of sorts, with Ryunosuke striking with precision once his opponent has made a move. This defines Ryunosuke in the film as he hides himself in plain sight, waiting for an opportunity to strike. Ryunosuke is defined as fundamentally evil in his introduction, cutting down a wandering pilgrim on a lonely mountain road. The rest of the film finds tension by placing this psychotic figure within institutions which have no real understanding of just how amoral he really is. For all intents and purposes the façade that Ryunosuke erects in his everyday life is the lowered blade he uses when fencing, his ferocity when pressed only witnessed in either isolation or as a last resort.
Shimada, who is the only character to rival Ryunosuke’s combat prowess, is quick and pragmatic in his fighting style. Swiftly repelling a horde of attackers in one of the film’s more amazing set pieces he approaches his opponents directly, repelling and diverting attacks in a very traditional way. Shimada represents traditionalist elements within the film, he’s a figure that represents all that is good about the samurai code and his few moments of action showcase an idealised form of the traditional cinematic Samurai style. The difference between the two is exemplified by the way the camera portrays the violence. When Ryunosuke is in combat the camera moves erratically, pacing and prowling around the action like it is agitated. When Shimada is in combat the camera stays largely centred, partially to represent the eye line of a shell shocked Ryunosuke as he witnesses Shimada’s prowess and partially to show a sense of stability within Shimada. Both Ryunosuke and Shimada are equally dangerous opponents, but these techniques amplify the dangerousness of Ryunosuke. As such when the film ends with Ryunosuke surrounded by multiple opponents, locked in a purgatory of violence, it feels like less of an abrupt ending and more of a thematic resolution. Ryunosuke is never going to find peace because he is essentially a broken man and those final moments represent the personal hell that his lifestyle has wrought.
Whilst Okamoto’s direction is superb, Hiroshi Murai’s cinematography resplendently gorgeous and Masaru Sato’s music jarringly evocative the main strength of The Sword of Doom is its cast. Tatsuya Nakadai makes all of this work despite having to play a character that is almost completely closed down emotionally. With cold, dead, eyes and a dispassionate attitude to violence Ryunosuke shouldn’t work as a protagonist, but Nakadai gets almost immediately to the core of the character and finds an intensity which makes Ryunosuke a loathable but compelling character. Nakadai, who most will probably know from his villainous turn in Yojimbo or as the aged warlord besieged by his sons in Ran, also brings an amazing physicality to the role managing to make every move and thrust of Ryunosuke’s blade have a sense of weight and momentum. Mifune, despite being used sparingly, is a fantastic presence in the film giving a sense of amiability, and sudden lethality, to Shimada. Like Nakadai he has an amazing sense of physicality and his one major action sequence is enlivened by Mifune’s technique and sheer screen presence.
Michiyo Aratama is given something of a thankless task as Hama, Ryunosuke’s mistress of bereaved wife of the swordsman whose life Ryunosuke took in self-defence. Whilst Shimada is there to act as a counter to Ryunosuke in a professional, ethical, sense Hama is there to act as a counter to Ryunosuke as a human being. Her fraught interactions with him further establishing how little humanity Ryunosuke has and her final moments galvanising him into a truly monstrous figure. Aratama doesn’t play Hama as a wilting flower, instead having Hama stand up to Ryunosuke and push his buttons in a way that no other character in the film can. Like Shimada she represents a weakness that Ryunosuke is all too aware of and her continued presence initially anchors Ryunosuke as a character, her brutal murder the catalyst for Ryunosuke’s descent into madness.
As such The Sword of Doom is one of those rare films where every element galvanises to create something truly great. Okamoto would go onto make more samurai films which ranged from the good (The Red Lion) to the excellent (Kill! starring Nakadai and Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo which reunited him with Mifune) but none of them had the texture of The Sword of Doom. In this case all the elements created something that feels almost transcendental and whilst you can praise the widescreen vistas, the iconic use of light and shadow, the ferocious choreography, the amazing performances there is something intangible about the film which makes it truly amazing.