Friday, January 20, 2012

Sword of Desperation

Animeigo sent me a very cool contemporary samurai film, Sword of Desperation (2010). It plays like a combo of old school and new -- think Twilight Samurai (2003) meets Destiny's Son (1962); all the gentle realism of the former fused with the genre conventions and deep Zen of the latter. Quite a heady mix, really.

Meet Sanzaemon Kanemi. He's a samurai retainer who kicks things off by running his wakizashi through the heart of his lord's favorite consort. Now normally that would be it for our Sanzaemon, but for some reason the lord spares his life, letting him off with a year's house arrest and a reduction in his annual rice stipend. Why did Sanzaemon do it? And why was he left with his head still fastened to his neck? All will be revealed, but slowly, delicately, oh so gradually, like the unfolding of a lotus blossom.

I mentioned that Sword of Desperation reminded me of Twilight Samurai. This is probably due to the fact that the novel its based on was penned by the same author, Shohei Fujisawa. Like the other films in the Yoji Yamada-directed sorta-trilogy, the central character here is a decent man, expert swordsman (of course), and is eventually placed in an impossible position with only his sword to help him. What I appreciated about this picture above the Yamada films was the blood; the arterial spray in Sword of Desperation is truly awesome. Think vintage Gosha meets that unforgettable scene in Sanjuro. The film takes such pains to present immaculate tatami interiors that when the blood finally starts flowing, the contrast is truly shocking. (I've often thought the Japanese must have a meticulous, time-honored technique for cleaning blood stains, what with all the sword-weilding that used to go on.)

So there you have it, another great samurai film, rich and rare and oh so very steeped in bushido. Savor it.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Coast Guard

I can definitely say this film was not what I was expecting. This is due in part to the fact that, as you can see below, the box art features fighter planes and an exploding battle ship, none of which appears in the film. What I got instead, however, was much more interesting than your standard war film. I got a WTF? Where is this going-type affair that nevertheless held me gripped all the way to the end credits. Then I remembered it was a Kim Ki-duk film, and everything fell into place.

Jang Dong-gun (Friend, Tae Guk Gi, and, more recently The Warrior's Way and My Way), plays Kang Han-chul, a gung-ho 1st private stationed at a South Korean army base assigned to watching the coastline near the 38th parallel. Private Kang is clearly wrapped too tight and a little too eager to shoot that North Korean spy he's sure will be showing up on the beach any night now. When he mistakenly blows away a townie in flagrante, it sets off a chain reaction of escalating events that lead to murder, scandal, insanity and revenge.

Jang Dong-gun is excellent as the ever-more unhinged Private Kang. It's an amazing performance, probably the most intense I've ever seen from him. Perhaps Kim Ki-duk brought it out, or maybe it was the material. In any case, you owe it to yourself to see this picture if you have any interest in either superstar Jang or cult king Kim (or, if you're like me, both). You can read more about Kim Ki-duk in my book Asia Shock.

As film scholar Rowena Santos Aquino points out in this great profile of Kim, Private Kang is less a character than a force of nature not unlike the enigmatic bait & tackle vendor/prostitute Hee-jin in The Isle (2000) or the bad guy pimp Han-ki in Bad Guy (2001). Also in common with The Isle is a certain measure of fish abuse (although not as bad).

Kim made The Coast Guard back in 2002, so it's been a long time coming to disk here in the States. It streets today, in fact, released by Palisades Tartan in a handy blu-ray/DVD combo pack. Like most of Kim's work, it's a powerful picture whose impact continues long after the final frame. One for the collection, I'd say.