The incredibly strange uncle who stopped living but was a lot less entertaining than a dirty baker’s dozen of samurai at AFI

As fate would have it, aside from a double bill of “Eraserhead” and an oddly beat-up print of “Sunset Boulevard” presented by David Lynch, I only saw two complete films at this year’s AFI Film Festival at the Chinese Theater multiplex.

The first was this year’s Cannes Palm D’Or winner, “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” from Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, aka “Joe.” This is obviously a film and a director with many ardent admirers, including a lot of online cinephile acquaintances I respect, and I can certainly understand why viewers much more patient than I with the “contemplative cinema” aesthetic would love it.

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It’s a sweet-natured and poignant magical realist non-story about a dying man and his family, with many striking individual moments but, by its own design, no narrative tension. Sadly, I seem to have a permanent allergy to the kind of deliberately slow-paced films that focus very intensely on the minutia of daily life with no particular story, even if, as in this case, it features plenty of arresting imagery and involves people who turn into half-monkey creatures and a ghost or two. I only nodded off once, but the gentlemen next to me was pretty much a goner at the 20 minute point. Snoring ensued.

I know as a cinephile I’m supposed to go for this sort of thing, but I’ve learned over and over throughout the years that the neorealist tradition and its filmic relatives rarely work for me. In “Uncle Bonmee,” a young male character takes a shower onscreen for about three minutes of screen time. I kept waiting for Mrs. Bates to enter with a butcher knife because I had no idea why we were watching this guy shower, as refreshing as the experience must have been for his character.

Vastly more up my ally was Takashi Miike’s “13 Assassins.” This samurai yarn has aroused some disappointment from fans of Miike’s past films because it’s a departure from Miike’s usual weirdness. A ridiculously prolific director with 70 films to his credit in a career of just 20 years, Miike is primarily known for a couple of “extreme” hits that I’m probably too squeamish to ever see, “Audition” and “Ichii the Killer,” as well as a rather delightful super-quirky musical-comedy horror film, “The Happiness of the Katakuris,” which I did see and very much enjoyed. The director has made non-transgressive films, including some outright family fare, which this certainly is not, but I gather he’s never made a major production quite this straightforward.

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At first, some viewers might expect “13 Assassins” to become a transgressive samurai flick in the usual Miike style. It opens with a character committing a particularly painful form of seppuku. It turns out to be not an excessively graphic depiction, but through the actor’s performance and some disturbing sound effects, we’re definitely made very aware of just what this intentionally painful and gruesome form of ritual suicide involves. Later on, there’s a deliberately disturbing moment involving a naked woman who has been horribly maimed and maltreated.

All of this, however, is set-up for a refreshingly simple plot for a samurai film: a group of ronin are recruited to kill an extremely well-guarded, and extremely evil imperial retainer whose impending promotion and Caligula-esque behavior threatens the very stability of the shogunate. “13 Assassins,” a remake of a 1963 hit I now very much want to see, turns out to be a sort of blackly jolly salute not only to traditional samurai classics like “The Seven Samurai” but the “guys on a mission” genre in general. Indeed, it’s a far more straightforward homage to the subgenre than “Inglourious Basterds” and is often nearly as much as fun. It climaxes with an extremely lengthy and imaginative battle sequence that I think all self-respecting Asian action films will want to see. If this doesn’t  turn out to be Miike’s most widely seen film, I’m not sure if anything makes any sense.

  

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