SXSW 2011: 13 Assassins

Even if you’ve never seen one of his films before, most cinephiles have at least heard about Japanese director Takashi Miike at some point in their lives, because he’s one of the most controversial directors working today. Those walking into “13 Assassins” expecting something sick and twisted, however, might be surprised to discover that it’s one of Miike’s most reserved films to date – a classic samurai tale that, while very similar to Akira Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai” in spirit, is actually a remake of the 1963 film by Eiichi Kudo. It’s a first for Miike, but he still puts his stamp on the material with some great visuals, buckets of blood, and one of the best (and without a doubt longest) fight sequences of the last 30 years.

The film takes place in Feudal Japan, where the era of the samurai is approaching its end and a sadistic young nobleman named Lord Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki) lives above the law, raping and killing as he pleases because he’s the half-brother of the current Shogun, Sir Doi (Mikijiro Hira). But even Sir Doi realizes the danger that Naritsugu presents should he succeed him as Japan’s leader, and so he secretly hires a trusted samurai named Shinzaemon (Koji Yakusho) to assassinate him. Though there are few worthy samurai still living within the country, Shinzaemon sets out to recruit a small group of warriors to ambush Naritsugu before he can reach the safe haven of Akashi and be promoted to second-in-command. But that’s easier said than done, especially after Shinzaemon learns that his old sparring partner, Hanbei Kitou (Masachika Ichimura), is Naritsugu’s private bodyguard – a position he holds with honor despite his master’s cruel ways.

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And just what kind of perverse behavior is Naritsugu capable of? Fortunately, Miike doesn’t indulge in showing too much, although we do see the remnants of one of his “sex toys” – a limbless woman who’s had her tongue cut out that one of Sir Doi’s senior officials presents to Shinzaemon to convince him to join the cause. Apart from that one grotesque moment, however, the film is pretty tame when compared to Miike’s usual grab bag of depravity, which is a little surprising because Naritsugu makes for such an interesting monster, wonderfully played by Inagaki with a disturbing, child-like curiosity for violence. The rest of the actors aren’t nearly as memorable as him, although screen veterans Yakusho and Ichimura bring a quiet intensity to the long-running rivalry between their characters that makes the long wait for their inevitable face-off worth it.

“13 Assassins” will definitely test your patience, because the first hour crawls by at a snail’s pace, with Miike taking the time to give each samurai a proper introduction. In fact, it can even be downright confusing between the large cast of characters (most of whose names you’ll never remember) and a prologue that flies by so quickly, you sort of have to put the pieces together on your own along the way. Still, it doesn’t present as big of an issue as you initially might think, because the film is essentially just a men on a mission story with one helluva finale. Though there isn’t much in the way of action before the final showdown, the last hour is a wildly entertaining orgy of swords, blood, fire and mud that goes on longer than it probably should, and yet never gets tiresome.

The scope of the battle is simply incredible, and it’s the kind of set piece that would make even guys like Michael Bay walk away from the film speechless. Still, it’s not the only reason for its success. The visuals are gorgeous, with Miike utilizing a muted palette that gives the movie an almost monochromatic look, while the occasional comedic moments help to lighten the mood and prepare the audience for the rousing, stand-up-and-cheer climax that’s just around the corner. It may not carry the same emotional weight as Kurosawa’s samurai classic, but “13 Assassins” is way more fun.

  

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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.

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“13 Assassins” walk into a film festival

And they get pretty good reviews. The newest international fave from Japan’s insanely prolific Takashi Miike looks plenty bloody but still a lot less extreme and a lot more classical than the ultra-gorefests that made his reputation as an action and horror director. In fact, it’s more in the vein of a traditional samurai flick and is actually a remake of a 1963 film. It already screened at Venice and will be playing next week in Toronto, which has introduced more than a few great Asian action fests to North America.

This trailer isn’t subtitled, but trust me, it’s worth watching.

Regular readers won’t be surprised to see that I’ve assiduously avoided Miike’s notorious “Audition” and “Ichii the Killer” but did see, and very much enjoyed his insane but actually rather restrained musical horror-comedy, “The Happiness of the Katakuris.” I think this might be my second Miike.

  

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The Good, the Bad, the Weird

Korean cinema has really flourished over the last five years under the guidance of directors like Chan-wook Park and Joon-hoo Bong, and you could probably add Ji-woon Kim to that list as well. Though his last two movies (the horror thriller “A Tale of Two Sisters” and the crime drama “A Bittersweet Life”) haven’t had much of an impact overseas, his latest film is a fresh and fun action comedy that transcends its midnight movie façade to succeed as a true cult classic in the making. Unlike Takashi Miike’s “Sukiyaki Western Django,” which failed to make the most of its East-meets-West potential, “The Good, the Bad, the Weird” actually has a solid story and some great acting to go along with its flashy set pieces.

Clearly inspired by Sergio Leone’s “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” Kim’s film takes place in 1930s Manchuria where three strangers – a bounty hunter (Woo-sung Jung), an assassin (Byung-hun Lee), and a clumsy thief (Kang-ho Song) – face off for possession of a stolen treasure map while being pursued by a group of bandits and the Japanese army. Though it’s a bit long at 130 minutes, Kim does well to keep the story moving along as we learn more about the characters and how they’re connected to one another. Granted, the supposed Good of the film isn’t really all that good considering he kills the most people, and Jung makes him so mysterious that he’s also the least identifiable, but the other two actors are perfect in their respective roles – particularly Song, who’s so amusing as the comic relief that it’s hard to imagine the movie working as well as it does without him in the mix. The film also features a handful of incredible action sequences that underscore everything that’s great about “The Good, the Bad, the Weird,” and although it might not appeal to everyone, it’s one of the most wildly entertaining movies that I’ve seen all year.

Click to buy “The Good, the Bad, the Weird”

  

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Hollywood, land of confusion

Today, much of the confusion appears to be ethnic.

* Patrick Goldstein presents the U.K. based “Case of the Vanishing and Less Famous African-Americans.

* Universal is “circling” a director of commercials named Carl Erik Rinsch for a shot at the big time for a new action flick, writes Michael Fleming. Rinsch, who I never heard of until now, turns out to have an pretty interesting visual approach (more about that in tonight next’s post), but these days every third movie is from some first-timer whose made his or her name doing commercials. Also, Keanu Reeves is the star. Nothing surprising or strange about that, I guess. No, what’s of interest here is that the movie is a new version of the story of the loyal 47 Ronin (leaderless samurai), an oft-filmed national legend — in Japan, that is.

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Okay, so Reeves is part-Asian, but his looks are sort of those of a vaguely ethnic white guy, which is usually neither here nor there, but this isn’t “Shogun” or “The Last Samurai” — it’s not a story about some random westerner who finds himself in 18th century Japan. Or maybe it is now. I don’t like pre-judging movies but this just gives me a bad feeling. The 47 Ronin is a dearly held national legend of Japan and they’re going to make a seemingly super-Americanized English language version, and starring this guy?

I know there’s such a thing as non-traditional casting, but this is just weird. Samurai are not merely part Japanese and really can’t be. Remember Boss Tanaka from “Kill Bill” and his reaction to taking orders from a woman who was Chinese-Japanese American? Quentin  Tarantino is one big-time Western filmmaker who knows something about Asian culture; I wonder if there are any others. If any movie were to give Japan’s growing nationalist far-right a boost, this could be it.

But it’s only a movie, right? So, let’s see some Japanese filmmakers get to do a version of the Alamo or the Shoot-Out at the O.K. Corral starring some vaguely Caucasian-looking Japanese actor as Wyatt Earp/Davey Crockett and film it in Japanese. I wonder how that would do in the States. I also wonder what our own ranting nativists would make of that.

Tadanobu Asano* But poetic semi-justice is swift, because also from the mighty pen of Michael Fleming comes the word of casting the “Warriors Three” by Kenneth Branagh of the upcoming “Mighty Thor” flick. Alongside the traditionally more or less Nordic looking Stuart Townsend and Ray Stevenson (who I guess will be wearing a fat suit of some sort as Valstagg or gaining a lot of weight, or will just be the trimmest Falstaff knock-off ever), Branagh has taken the interesting step of going full mongol on the character of Hogun, who was partially modeled on Charles Bronson, by casting the Japanese actor who actually starred in “Mongol” (and Takashi Miike’s probably-never-to-be-seen-by-me gangster gorefest, “Ichi the Killer”), Tadanobu Asano. Yes, this is not your father’s lily-white Asgard.

* Mel Gibson adds to the confusion/mystery around “Max Max 4.”

* And, finally, in non-ethnically based confusion, Nikki Finke reports Carl Icahn appears to be mucking about with the MGM sale, and the ever-opinionated Devin Faraci (well, he’s a pussycat next to Ms. Finke, but who isn’t?) has some interestingly contentious thoughts on the state of geek-oriented film journalism and Julia Styles/Spiderman/Black Cat rumors.

  

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