Sunday, 31 July 2011



Taegukgi hwinalrimyeo

Je Gyu- Kang, 2004, South Korea

We start by literally digging up the history of the Korean war: an excavation of a battlefield is underway. Everything is as straightforward as can be; we know where we stand and the conventions are all in place (at the very lest, Spielberg’s war epics shall be good indications of what’s to come). Triggered by the excavation and the search for a battlefield survivor, a flashback returns us to 1950 at the outbreak of the Korean war. Grand period street scene recreations abound, against which our two protagonists, the brothers, dash around as the score flourishes. All very Segio Leone, very Bertolucci, etc.

“Brotherhood” is a struggle between the overwhelming achievement of its battle scenes and the overwhelming forces of its melodrama. The latter provides an almost perfunctory framework within which the former can operate. The melodrama of the tale of two brothers coerced into the Korean war runs along emotional and narratively contrived and predictable lines: it starts out all “Once Upon A Time in Korea” with the immense street scenes epic in detail and nostalgic in tone, for we join them on The Perfect Day Before Their Lives Changed Forever. We know that these opening scenes will come back as flashbacks later on in more fraught times. One brother – Jin-saeok Lee (Bin Won) - is an academic, and the other – Jin-tae Lee (Dong-gun Jang) - is a ‘rough’ streetwise shoe-seller. Later, there shall be a lot of sentiment over both symbolic pens and shoes. So rich is their environment and set design that the obviousness of what the narrative is doing and what is being set up is secondary. The broad strokes may make Je-Gyu’s film undemanding, but the details frequently keep it compelling: the maggots on casualty wounds; the starvation; the way the young men are duped into being drafted into the army; the confusion and in-fighting about who, exactly, is the enemy. Even better is the way Je-Gyu frequently shows how the epic qualities of war, with which we are all acquainted from cinema, is always reduced to hand-to-hand combat: the melees remind us that this is not only about a bunch of extras and dummies flying around in the distance to frightening and thrilling explosions, but also the messy, chaotic, free-for-all man-to-man combat that leaves life a second-to-second business. So visceral and intimate are these masses of fist-fights of the first battle scene – so brilliantly achieved – that by the end of the first hour it feels as if “Brotherhood” is already done, having fulfilled its quota.

But there is a further hour and a half to go. The rough brother is corrupted by war, by his own heroism, even as his pen-pushing sibling walks through unscathed much like an untouched virgin in a brothel. Je-Gyu appears to be trying for something mythical, totemic and/or archetypal in this tale of brotherly love driven apart by war, but all this seems to mean is that the melodrama increases without ever straining convention or anything nuanced. We also get many more battle scenes, and these often take the breath away. In their insistence and persistence that epic battles are always ultimately about a mass of men pounding and stabbing away at one other in trenches - thrashing around on top of each other in total desperate and murderous mayhem with very little rhyme or reason other than to stay alive - the battle scenes are as consummate condemnation of war as any you are likely to see. Jin-tae is a virtual superman in his heroism, seeming impervious to hails of bullet at times, and yet Je-Gyu never wallows in the dubious victories of war. The soldiers and streets may celebrate, but after the first victory party, these celebrations seem to become hollow and tired and by rote. Their propagandist nature rises to the surface with repetition. But “Brotherhood” has its own agenda of sentiment and by the final battle this has drowned those smarter details and, like so many war films, reduces the huge horror to a [sibling] love story, to the detriment of insight.

“Brotherhood” probably isn’t much of a digging up of Korea’s history of conflict - I certainly learnt nothing specific about its causes and complexities, although mass confusion at gound-level seems a reasonable estimate of life during wartime - and there is certainly merit in dragging it to the heel of human tragedy, to the individuals and families torn apart. But arguably a clear and less fevered eye is more instructive and so “Brotherhood” feels classic only in the way that classics may have once relied too much upon sentiment and a grand scale to avoid politics and insights (for example: Eastwood’s “Letters From Iwo Jima” provides a similar but cooler and more incisive comparison; “Brotherhood” is more like “Flags of Our Fathers” in its reliance upon nostalgia and over-cooked pathos). But there is a lot of terrible truth in those numerous battle scenes and it is those that will leave the viewer breathless, shaken and hugely impressed. The actual tale of brotherhood evaporates in a explosion of melodramatic cliché.


13 ASSASSINS - Jûsan-nin no shikaku

Takashi Miike, Japan-UK, 2010

I know that for a Western audience it is ordinarily “Audition” or “Ichi the Killer” that acts as their introduction to Takashi Miike, but for me it was “Visitor Q”. It was “Visitor Q” that truly told me that Miike was a master of not only shock cinema, but cinema and genre overall. What an induction. The most incredible social satire, a real funny and unapologetic shocker. Miike famously has an incredible output. 50 films to date and counting or something. He has tried everything. And he can do anything. Working your way through his back catalogue will take you from the sublime, the manic, the carefully crafted to the more workmanlike. But even at his most prosaic – “One Missed Call” and “Bodyguard Kiba” – there is always evidence of Miike’s barely tethered inventiveness, always at least one remarkable moment. If I say he is a master of genre, then you may pick any genre that you favour and he has set a precedent in it. He understands genre. His is an incredibly gonzo imagination but he also possesses great discipline and exceptional artistry.
Take for example Miike’s adaptation of Eiichi Kudo’s “The Thirteen Assassins”, the 1963 shogun film. Miike’s “13 Assassins” starts with a episode of seppuku which is no less gruelling for the act itself taking place offscreen: Miike trusts that all we need to see is the actor’s tortured face; and yes it is enough. But this is also not to say that Miike will hold back from shock and explicitness. Soon, we gaze upon a traumatised woman whose limbs have been cut off by the insane Shogun lord. Next, we shall see this lord using a family as target practice. Later, the blood will flow. And how. There is a steady and pensive nature to the first half of “13 Warriors”, in which the chilling atrocities carried out by the Shogun lord - Lord Naritsugu (Gorô Inagaki) - have time to ferment. This is a villain of incredible vintage. His cruelty is boundless and moored to his philosophy that to be a Shogun is to be a God, that cruelty is the natural right and extension of the absolute power he possesses. It is a power buffered by the way of the samurai who do his bidding, who must die for him and never question why. “13 Assassins” has much to say about the atrocities allowed by rampant feudalism and blind obedience. The themes of the film are timeless just as the film feels timeless: it already feels like a classic.
The inspirations and references are easy to conjure – Kurosawa, etc – but, again, Miike’s mastery of genre is unsurpassed and all his own. We have 13 assassins even before the wealth of side characters that populate all the political intrigue; but Miike knows that we know the nature of this film, that we know our Kurosawa and Leone and Ford and all those other classics. He knows that he can sketch the assassins with hints of stock types and allow fine actors to bring them to life and that shall be enough for the audience to keep track. There is no need for flashbacks and great back-stories, although we get a little of that also. The beginning is the slow burn: our villain is vile, our assassins assembled, our blood chilled and the atmosphere thick with pending confrontation. Miike allows the superficially slow pace (a repeat viewing will reveal that, in actually, it is not so slow and that narrative is delivered in a number of swift set-pieces with often underplayed and straightforward drama) and the dour, low naturalistic lighting to cast a doom-laden, almost uncanny atmosphere, and expectation for the confrontation builds on and on.
The way of the samurai is dying away and, most of all, these samurai want a last chance to use their skills and die by the way of the sword, as they wish. There is a lot about honour and choice in “13 Assassins” too. Even for the youngest member who merely wants to get the chance to try out his skills and die like his heroes. There are a handful of stand-offs to whet the appetite and some gorgeous photography to keep us gripped as expectation mounts further.

And then … and then Miike offers us something sublime. A battle that takes half of the film. A battle in which he unleashes all the repressed violence that has been building up. A battle that relishes the old fashioned cinematic joy of a handful of heroic types up against impossible odds (and it feels joyously far from the macho-heroics of American action cinema). A battle that is built not from CGI (although probably that too), but collapsing sets, giant gates, hundreds of extras, lashings of blood and, exhilaratingly, burning and rampaging bulls. It is one of the greatest battle scenes ever filmed. If it sometimes falls into the modern trap of action conveyed by a shaking camera and too many cuts, threatening incomprehensibility at times, it also follows the battle over rooftops and through streets, alleys and buildings and with the thirteen assassins without ever truly losing us. It is quite remarkable and thrilling. Also remarkable is that throughout this cinematic exhilaration, Miike never loses the sense of doom, of the themes already established, of existential musing on what it means to die for something - blindly or knowlingly - of choosing to challenge the wrong of the established order and hierarchy.

I never thought I would see a new Miike film at the cinema (he makes so many and they generally bypass the London big screen), but I did and I was reminded why he is one of my favourite directors. I knew, when the battle scene began, that I was in the midst of watching a masterpiece. Having deliberately avoiding reading anything about it, the battle scene surprised and dazzled me. But all the time, I knew that the whole of the film was so much more. An instant classic. It straddles everything that has been celebrated about classic cinema with all the artistry and tricks of modern cinema, much like “There Will Be Blood” and “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward John Ford”. The quiet of the aftermath and the slightly sly humour and final sentiment of the closing exchange between survivors continues to elevate the film to the very end. The bloodletting and the samurai code is finally dismissed and mocked even as the honour and sacrifice of our eponymous heroes is respected and makes the viewer wonder what it is to die for duty. Or, as Nick Schager summarises, “Miike isn't interested in shades of gray, but rather in celebrating the dignity of forfeiting one's comfort and livelihood (if not life itself) for a worthy cause.”
“13 Assassins” is delirious, mad, elegant, thoughtful, cathartic, dazzling in scope, funny, gritty and brutal. It feels both like art and pure cinema in that is luxuriates in spectacle, storytelling and man’s confrontations with himself and others, and his place in the universe and the natural world. Another Miike masterpiece.