47 Ronin [mild spoilers]: follows a group of disgraced samurai as they set out to avenge their murdered master. As it’s a Hollywood film it obviously contains every single ‘western portrayal of Asia’ pitfall imaginable – everyone speaking ‘Engrish’, exotic mystique, ninjas/samurai everywhere, forbidden gaijin romance, cherry blossom, western warrior, kanji writing, tradition, tradition, tradition… Because of this – and given the foul reviews this received – I was expecting something woeful, but this is pleasantly surprising. The visuals are fantastic: it is a touch over-styalised – some parts feel like Sucker Punch set in feudal Japan – but the costumes, textures, sets, CGI backgrounds are all eye-poppingly sumptuous: it’s up there with The Fall’s immaculate design. Story-wise, other than a few swashbuckling & sword fighting action set pieces, this is definitely more of a drama than you expect: the story arcs are all fairly standard until the ‘happy’ ending – a mass samurai suicide instead of a mass criminal hanging – yay! The biggest complaint you hear about this is that it’s nothing like the original story: WTF?! This is a blockbuster movie… and there are so many fictionalized accounts of this tale that there’s a specific entire genre term for it – Chūshingura! The weirdest thing about 47 Ronin is that it plays to two wildly different audiences – it’s half respectful and traditional samurai movie; and half Game of Thrones style middle-earth mayhem (battles, questing, magic & mythology). Overall, it’s an interesting, and beautiful, oddity that could have been great, but is by no means a terrible movie.
The Duel Project started out as a drunken bet, when Japanese movie producer Shinya Kawai challenged two up-and-coming directors to each make a film that had only two actors, who would fight to the death, in a single location – it also had to be shot in less than a week, and stick to a tiny budget. The results were Aragami and 2LDK (2LDK REVIEW HERE)
Aragami: two wounded soldiers collapse at the door of a monastery, but when one wakens up the hospitality doesn’t last long. This film couldn’t be more different to 2LDK. The dialogue feels slow and padded out. There’s continual talk of magic, immortality, demons, goblins and such fantasy staples – bit of a turn-off for me. The film’s soundtrack is OTT porno music / thrash metal, and the tone is equally unusual – slapstick/manga. All familiar territory for Ryuhei Kitamura who’s biggest film to date was Versus, and was using this as a ‘dry run’ for Azumi – unfortunately the film only finds its stride in the last 10 minutes. My favourite aspect was how much the film was steeped in a history of swordplay and swordfighting movies yesteryear – from intricate/complex katana flare, down to some lovely, old school, ‘Shing! Ching!’ metal-clashing sound effects. Aragami isn’t a bad film, but watching it after 2LDK really takes the sting out it’s tail: whereas you enjoy the pressure-cooker buildup in 2LDK, Aragami’s set-up feels flat and uninteresting, you just want to see these guys battle it out, and when it does roll round, it feels much shorter and less innovative/satisfying than the other movie. The Duel Project is definitely worth checking out, but I’d recommend watching this first, building up to the superior 2LDK.
“Ninja Stars are for losers”
Dante 01: psychiatric research centre on the edge of the galaxy – Dante 01 – gets a new, unknown, patient,with some strange powers. So technically this is a Sci-Fi film, but for all intents and purposes it’s a glorified stoner flick – Philosophy 101, religion, mythology and lots of trippy visuals; like an unexplained freaky x-ray scan-o-vision. The leading actor had the most monotonous role ever; wriggle on floor, stagger through corridor, puke everywhere, pretend to be eating CGI space octopi. The film just goes through several boring cycles of the same CGI graphics and infection reactions, and nothing’s really developed. Weirder still, everyone was inexplicably a skin-head, which meant that in the low light it was ridiculously difficult to tell who was who quickly. Then at the end the films bursts into a ridiculous ‘2001‘ moment, which is just pitiful. I’ve NEVER been this bored or unimpressed by a Sci-Fi film, ever (Although Sci-fi is really just a guise to hammer home the “science can’t explain religion, lol” super-plot. God-awful. Not so much ‘Dante 01‘ as it is ‘Dante – #2‘
Yamada – Way of the Samurai: (AKA The Samurai of Ayothaya): A betrayed Japanese samurai is nursed back to health by Thai villagers, and by fusing the national fighting techniques, becomes a great warrior. This has the hallmarks of a co-production between the two countries; great because it brings together the best / most famous aspects of both cultures, but feels a little back-patting at times. It features some brutal Muay Thai boxing… very realistic, impressive and visceral: they’re real champion Thai boxers. The bigger action set pieces are well-edited, but the CGI swords, blood, and other effects look cheap. In typical Thai style there’s a ‘musical’ feel to the soundtrack and national style of acting – young girl and underplayed love interest are most guilty of hamming it up. Being based on a historical figure, the story’s a little clunky, but the locations, sets and costumes all look great, and are captured well by the director. Yamada may not have the most gripping/original story, or best/most famous cast in the world, but there’s more than enough gorgeous Scenery and brutal Thai fighting skill for the film to fall back on and keep you watching for the duration.