Friday, May 27, 2011


Back in 2007 I attended the 30th Portland International Film Festival (I blogged about it once or twice). One of the films supposedly playing was Exiled (2006). However, every time I went to a scheduled screening, someone would walk out, sheepishly apologize, and tell the audience that the film was still on the way -- sorry, here watch this instead. After a couple of attempts, I gave up on seeing it. Finally screening the film yesterday, I realize it wasn't a great loss.

Don't get me wrong, it's not a bad film. However, it's a Johnnie To film starring Anthony Wong, Simon Yam, Lam Suet, Nick Cheung and Francis Ng -- it should have blown my mind, but instead it merely held my attention. It's a low-key affair, very dark (literally as well as figuratively -- most of it is people silhouetted in inky blackness) with long periods of brooding. There are, of course, the usual explosions of violence, usually protracted gun battles, but there's an emptiness at the center; I just didn't feel a connection to the characters, and the tempo was a bit too adagio.

It's about five guys from Macau, childhood friends, who became gangsters, and one of them apparently shot the boss. Now his four friends are split; two are loyal to the boss and have been dispatched to rub him out. The other two are loyal to him and determined to stop the other guys. At least that's how it starts. But you know how gangsters are, always flipping sides. This goes for the bosses as well, and before long everyone is blasting away.

Simon Lam turns in a frightening performance as Boss Fay, but Anthony Wong merely phones it in (or perhaps he was directed that way -- I don't know, I'm forever ruined after seeing his performances in The Untold Story and Ebola Syndrome). Lam Suet, the John Goodman of contemporary Hong Kong cinema, is great as usual, and Nick Cheung shows his range (compare his taciturn family man here with his vicious assassin in Beast Stalker).

I need to see more Johhnie To films (and there are certainly plenty to see), but this one just didn't do it for me. I much prefer something like PTU.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

13 Assassins

For those of you who find the contemporary samurai films of Yoji Yamada a bit dull, have I got the film for you! I'm not normally a fan of remakes, but I've got to hand it to Takahsi Miike -- once the enfant terrible of Japanese indie cinema, our boy is all grown up now, making modern samurai films that attempt to capture the horrendous realities of living and dying by the sword. In 13 Assassins (2010), he more than succeeds.

Whether intentional or not, the film begins as something of a mindfuck. The early scenes are virtually a shot-for-shot recreation of Eiichi Kudo's 1963 original. I was thinking, "Oh great, another Gus Van Sant Psycho affair." However, things become distinctly Miikean around ten minutes in, with a graphic beheading followed by the image of an emaciated, limbless, naked woman bleeding from her eyeballs. Miike is clearly upping the stakes here, but he manages to do so while remaining loyal to the story, as well as the spirit, of the original film.

Playing the central role of Shinzaemon Shimada is Koji Yakusho, one of the few remaining Japanese actors in the same league as the samurai stars of old. A protege of the great Tatsuya Nakadai, Yakusho made his film debut alongside his teacher in Hideo Gosha's most excellent Hunter in the Dark (1979). Us folks in the West became aware of him as the foodie gangster in white in Tampopo (1985). He's since appeared in scads of great Japanese films including Kon Ichikawa's Dora-heita, Shohei Imamura's The Eel, Shinji Aoyama's Eureka and a whole slew of Kiyoshi Kurosawa films. Needless to say, he's great in 13 Assassins. His character is much more engaged in the action than his predecessor (who only entered the fray of the final fight right at the end).

While I still have reservations about Miike's upcoming reworking of Masaki Kobayashi's immortal Hara-Kiri, I will anticipate it with somewhat less trepidation having seen 13 Assassins. Miike's definitely maturing as a filmmaker, and while he'll never stand up to the likes of Kobayashi, he just might do justice to the legacy of that great auteur. (Boy, did that sound pompous. Oh well, fuck it, that's what I think.)

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Thirteen Assassins

Sometimes you revisit a film and you're amazed to find how much better (or worse) it is than you remember. And you're struck by the realization that since the film obviously hasn't changed, it must be you that has. When the film seems better, you've changed for the better (and when it's worse, you realize what an idiot you used to be). Fortunately for me, the former was the case when I went back and watched Eiichi Kudo's The Thirteen Assassins (1963). Screening the film several years ago, I'd found it tedious and dull up until the big finale. Perhaps I was just watching too many samurai films at the time. In any case, re-watching it the other day I finally got it.

Perhaps I have a greater appreciation now for the intrinsically Japanese passion for planning than I did here to for. It's an intense pursuit that, in the case of this period film, reflects not only a fastidious intellectual acuity, but also a deep knowledge of the forms of etiquette and ritual of the samurai ruling class (and the best ways of subverting same). One cannot truly appreciate The Thirteen Assassins without some interest in such matters.

The plot is essentially contained in the title: Thirteen guys are going to kill a guy. As I say, it's not the what but the how that is of interest here, and the fact that the thirteen guys are up against incredible odds. Their target, a cruel and detestable daimyo (feudal lord), is on one of his annual trudges back and forth to Edo (this time on his way back to his fief), heavily guarded and in the company of a wily and resourceful retainer capable of matching our baker's dozen samurai's maneuvers feint, parry and thrust.

Cast-wise, The Thirteen Assassins is stellar. You've got Toei veteran Chiezo Kataoka at the helm as master strategist Shinzaemon Shimada. He's hired by Lord Doi Oi-no-kami (The Inevitable Tetsuro Tamba) to knock off Lord Naritsugu Matsudaira (Kantaro Suga). Naritsugu is aided by the more than capable Hanbei Kito (Ryohei Uchida) who matches wits with Shimada throughout the picture. The master swordsman among the thirteen assassins is Kujuro Hirayama (Ko Nishimura). I'm a big fan of Nishimura, one of the most expressive and unforgettable faces in Japanese cinema. You may remember him as Shintaro Katsu's skeevy boss in the The Razor films, or as the guy Toshiro Mifune literally drives insane with fear in The Bad Sleep Well. Ryohei Uchida you'll know from Samurai Wolf and Shadow Hunters. And Tetsuro Tamba? Forget about it. He's been in every Japanese film ever made (plus Bond film You Only Live Twice and the spaghetti western Five Man Army).

In terms of story, The Thirteen Assassins bears more than a passing resemblance to Kurosawa's Seven Samurai. There's the seasoned pro leading a team that includes a trusty lieutenant, a master swordsman, a country bumpkin wannabe samurai, a young dude, etc. They're hired to eliminate a menace (swap out bandits for a heinous lord). Even the manner in which they execute their plan is similar. So no points for originality there.

Nevertheless, The Thirteen Assassins is an absorbing film, far more well paced than I'd remembered, and the 30 minute melee at the end is fantastic. Yes, I must reexamine Eiichi Kudo. I recall not liking his The Great Killing either. Hmm. Watch this space ...

Thursday, May 12, 2011

I Saw the Devil

Just when you thought Korean revenge flicks couldn't get any more extreme, along comes Kim Ji-woon to raise the bar a dozen rungs. In I Saw the Devil (2010), the director pushes the envelope into psycho killer/torture porn territory, making what has to be the final statement in the genre.

If you thought Choi Min-sik was intense in Oldboy, wait 'til you see him here. As serial killer Jang Gyeong-cheol, he gives Anthony Wong's Bunman a run for his money (something I never thought I'd say about any actor). See Asia Shock for more on the amazing Choi, a stage and screen veteran who is South Korea's answer to Lawrence Olivier, Robert De Niro and Tatsuya Nakadai all rolled into one. Choi plays opposite Lee Byeong-Heon, no slouch in the Korean film star world -- JSA, A Bittersweet Life, Three ... Extremes, The Good, the Bad, the Weird -- you could say he's been around. When these two top-notch performers go head-to-head, it makes for an explosion of violence that leaves no surface unbloodied.

The plot is fairly straightforward: Jang kills a woman who happens to be the fiance of intelligence agent Kim Soo-hyeon (Lee). The latter, crushing his bereavement into a tight ball of monomaniacal rage, is out for revenge. No spoiler, you get that much from the trailer. What really blows you away is the way in which he goes about it and the unpredictable events that result from his unique methodologies. As Jang tells Kim more than once in the film, "You fucked with the wrong guy." I won't say any more -- the mind-blowing plot twists and OTT gore are best experienced with as little preconceptions as possible.

I've been a fan of Kim Ji-woon since seeing his first film, The Quiet Family (1998), an exquisite black comedy (also featuring Choi Min-sik). Kim went from strength to strength with The Foul King (2000, a wrestling comedy starring Song Kang-ho), A Tale of Two Sisters (2003, a creepy K-horror), A Bittersweet Life (2005, a gangster saga starring Lee Byeong-Heon), The Good, the Bad, the Weird (2008, a bonkers, Leone-fueled western) and, finally, I Saw the Devil (as well as a few shorts along the way). Moving from genre to genre, Kim seems out to prove he can master them all, and he has yet to put a foot wrong. It's hard to believe the guy's only made half a dozen features -- they're all so good that it feels as if he's made many more.

I Saw the Devil was at the top of my list of films to see in Pusan last year. However, like the other films I wanted to see, they had all played by the time I got there, mid-festival. What could I do? They didn't post screening times online until I'd already booked my flight and hotel. Thanks guys. Oh well, got it on Blu-ray now -- and I'd recommend you do the same.

Saturday, May 7, 2011


AnimEigo has released Tadashi Imai's 1964 samurai classic Revenge (Adauchi), which I reviewed in Warring Clans, Flashing Blades. In the book, I stated my opinion that the film is good but has problems. It suffers from uneven pacing, underdeveloped characters and a confusing use of flashbacks (are we now or are we then?).

That said, Revenge boasts strengths as well, chiefly in the performance of its star, Kinnosuke Nakamura. Nakamura was the most emotive of the samurai stars of the 60s, and here he gives 110%. He plays a low-ranking samurai who duels a haughty superior and wins -- against the wishes of his clan (who promptly banish him to a mountain monastery). Things go from bad to worse when the slain man's brother shows up (the inevitable Tetsuro Tamba). Before long the clan elders want our hero dead, and as the pressure mounts, so does his anxiety, fear and rage (see box cover, above).

My opinion of this film is in the minority, as most critics hail Revenge as a masterpiece. Its political allegory works and, as I said, Kinnosuke Nakamura is mesmerizing. So decide for yourself and feel free to add a comment.