Friday, December 3, 2010

Far East Specials: Blood and Bones

Blood and Bones (2004, Sai Yoichi)

Takeshi Kitano is one of those actors who is endlessly watchable, regardless of the overall quality of the films he is in. Unlike most, I was not a big fan of Battle Royale (2000), but his smart part was both hilarious and intimidating. Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman (2003) was a blood soaked and thrilling retelling of the famous samurai’s story, and again Kitano was the main attraction, notwithstanding the crazy dance sequence at the end. He is an actor who brings an uncommon energy to his roles time and time again. Were I too venture a comparison with an American actor, I’d say that he is a bit like Jack Nicholson in that Kitano the man has taken on a persona which often finds its way into his individual performances. He interprets characters, but they are all undeniably Kitano-inspired characters, and much of the same can be said for so many of Nicholson’s performances, both the good and the bad. There is an undeniable charm and attachment to the actor, but oftentimes they are covered in brashness, brutality, or cockiness.

Sai Yoichi’s adaptation of Zainichi Korean (ethnic Koreans living in Japan) author Yan Sogiru’s autobiographical novel puts Beat Kitano front and center as Shun-Pei,  a new immigrant to Japan in 1923 with dreams of making as much money as he possibly can by whatever means necessary. As the old saying goes:  ‘The ends justify the means.’ The story develops over the course of several decades within the Korean Japanese community, adding a variety of historical and cultural impact to the film we don’t see often, unless someone can point me to another accessible film about Koreans living in Japan in the 20th century. On and off narration is provided by one of Shun-Pei’s sons, Masao (Hirofumi Arai), who takes advantage of the narration to express his intense disliking of his father. With a father figure the likes of Shun-Pei, it is small wonder that there never formed any sort of loving bond. In one of the film’s very first scenes, the viewer is privy to a violent rape scene, one of many fits of sexual rage that Shun-Pei allows himself to indulge in. By the time coitus is reached, Masao’s narration succinctly reveals that the woman is his mother. Good grief.

That is nothing but a snippet of the vile acts Shun-Pei partakes in throughout the film. I know that earlier I mentioned how Kitano’s performances have a charm about them. I believe that ‘charm’ may not have been the most apt word of choice.  Suffice that whenever Kitano is on screen, which in Blood and Bones is most of the time, one cannot take his or her eyes off of him.  That’s magnetism for you, although his character represents the worst kind of social filth one could ever find in the lowest depths of hell. Still, there is something to be said of his character’s drive to monetary success. He arrived at Osaka as a poor peasant from Korea and was naturally forced to find his own way to the top. First there is the reality that he is a Korean living in Japan during a period of intense national pride, which puts him at something of a disadvantage. Second is that he hasn’t come with much money. His fanatical drive for profit, if admittedly exaggerated, is similar to the kind of drive a lot up and coming business men must equip themselves with. His undying love for capitalism metaphorically takes on yet another shape when the story shifts to the mid and late fifties, a time when the country of his birth has been politically divided by two diametrically opposed ideologies, capitalism and communism. Some of youth in the neighbourhood who are of Korean descent vow to actively support their northern brothers in arms by returning to the homeland to fight for communist cause. Shun-Pei is undeterred however, pursuing his borderline psychotic hunt for more money. I don’t know if Blood and Bones was specifically hoping to make explicit statements about politics and economics in Japan and Korea during the 20th century, but there are certainly many little moments involving actions taken by the characters that, if familiar with the cultural and political context of the times in Far East Asia, should resonate with certain viewers.

The film clocks in at just over 2 hours and 20 minutes, but rarely is ever feels bogged down in too many plot points or loses momentum. Director Sai Yoichi expertly handles the many threads that dreadfully tie all the family members together, never swaying too much in favour of one supporting cast member over any other. Wife, mistresses, sons, daughters, almost everybody is awarded some decent scenes to get their character arcs across, enhancing the emotional impact most of these characters are destined to. Yoichi’s camera is intimate in its subtlety, always getting close enough for the viewer to get a strong sense of what’s transpiring. At times, especially during the rape and wife/mistress beating scenes, the shots are too close for comfort, but that is precisely the challenge the filmmakers are throwing at the audience. Can you handle almost two and a half hours with this man? Shun-Pei does not change his ways despite the painfully evident toll his personality begins to wear down on virtually everyone close to him, to the extent that one of his mistresses literally has a mental breakdown at one point.  

Writing about a film of this nature is difficult because I feel the need to elaborate on some of the incredulous acts Hun-Pei engages in, but avoiding critical spoilers is something I take certain pride in. I do want to stress that if you don’t enjoy films in which violence to women is depicted again, again and again, than you might want to stray from Blood and Bones. For the rest of who can’t get enough of things like that (I’m kidding of course), Blood and Bones works as one of the queasiest character studies out there. Takeshi Kitano really embraces this role and that is a credit to him as an actor. This is difficult material to handle and to sell as authentic. The source of Shun-Pei’s authenticity as a character rests primarily with Kitano’s performance (credit should also go to the original author for whom we have to thank for sharing this story originally), which is as rugged and animalistic as I’ve ever seen, and yet, I swear to god, there are the briefest of moments when Kitano does something with his eyes that say something else might be ticking behind that monstrous face of his. Seeing him care for his dilapidated former mistress after her seizure makes for some of the stranger scenes in a movie where he treats virtually everyone else like garbage, even that same mistress prior to her medical condition.

There are plenty of scenes in Blood and Bones that I’ll never forget for their grotesque effectiveness. Guided by Sai Yoichi’s assured direction and Beat Kitano’s ‘force of nature’ performance, I highly recommend people seek out the movie.

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