Tuesday, April 5, 2011

DIFF Review 13 ASSASSINS - He Said

Directed by: Takashi Miike
Written by: Kaneo Ikegami (based on a screenplay by), Daisuke Tengan (screenplay)
Starring: Koji Yakusho, Takayuki Yamada, Goro Inagaki, Masachika Ichimura and Yusuke Iseya.

Asian cinema is something that is always constantly being referred to by lots of movie geeks, and I have yet to be disappointed by an Asian movie.  And 13 ASSASSINS does not disappoint.  It is the kind of action movie that was made more stateside with proper tension in the fight scenes with a big and epic, yet very personal story. The movie does a good job of taking a familiar plot line and making it seem fresh and new again.

 I am not too familiar with director Miike’s previous work, but as Steve Norwood, who presented the movie on behalf of the Asian Film Festival of Dallas, it is a big change from his previous.  Well, if this is radically different, then I say this man can keep on evolving and taking on other genres. The story deals with the last days of feudal Japan, where the samurai are being transitioned out of society, a lot of them not knowing what to do with themselves; ome become drunks, others retired, or some try harder than ever to uphold the samurai way.   The movie starts out in a rather intense depiction of hara-kiri (the honorable suicide) which sets up the whole tone for the movie.  There is political unrest at the revelation that the Shogun has a stepbrother, Lord Naritsugu (Inagaki), this has caused some concern, as the Naritsugu is one truly sadistic and unhinged bastard.  Not on recent memory have I seen a villain so despicable and over the top depicted in a movie.  He kills and destroys whole villages just for merely speaking up against one of his actions, and he rapes women just because.  It’s funny because the Lord reminds me of Overlord, a Transformers villain in a beloved Transformers comic story The Last Stand Of The Wreckers, which hits a lot of the same beats as this story, including the impossible odds that the a colorful group of heroes fighting for a greater cause will face. 

Sir Doi, the Shogun’s chief justice officer, becomes entangled in the dilemma of prosecuting the Lord, and making a fool of the Shogun, or looking like a weak official.  His other main concern is that the Lord will be promoted to be second-in-command to the Shogun, who although aware of this stepbrother’s actions, values family above all things.  Hence, Sir Doi hatches a plot to have samurai warriors assassinate the Lord and make it look like an accident, with the leader being legendary samurai Shinzaemon Shimada (Yakusho). The first part of this movie, Shinzaemon assembles his team of assassins (try to guess how many there will be), and they are all introduced in very unique ways much like other movies where you build up a team to take on impossible odds.  There are some very interesting interactions as the samurai are recruited.  They all know that they don’t have a place in society as prominent as they used to, and yet because of the sheer strength of their training they are willing to take up their swords once again to protect a country and a way of life they love from potential chaos at the hands of Lord Naritsugu. 

A thing that I can’t ever seem to do with foreign films is picking out the nuances of good acting, especially when it is subtitled, I always notice that things go missing in translation when I see subbed movies in Spanish. Given that, I really liked every one of the members of the team.  They acted in very specific ways which made them memorable, which given their Japanese names felt like a great feat. I did enjoy the fact that Shimada was a strong but honest leader, always being upfront about how difficult it will be to carry out this assassination.  Shimada also has quite a bit of a struggle as he is technically breaking part of the samurai code.  His antagonist Hanbei, the Lord’s bodyguard, follows the code to the letter, which causes his to support the Lord even if he is evil.  There’s an interesting back and forth between the two former classmates that makes the movie go into some interesting philosophical territory.

Where the movie really shines is the action.  When you get to the ridiculously awesome climactic battle, you feel worn out from all of the action, tension, and sheer amount of blood. Not only that, but the choreography is excellent.  There are tons of long shots during every action scene where you can actually tell what is going on, even with upwards of 20-30 people on screen at the same time.  Yet another lesson I wish American directors would take to heart.  Finally, the cinematography and setting is astounding.  I’m not sure if I’m so excited by it because I recently saw SUCKER PUNCH’s sterile CGI backgrounds and enemies that it made me appreciate the very human element going on in this movie.

If I were to have a complaint about this movie, it’d be that the characters, while well acted, never go beyond any of the specific stereotypes or character types.  If they are about honor, they will talk very about anything else.  It can get a bit tiresome, but that’s a relatively minor complain in comparison to the good that the movie offers.

13 ASSASSINS is a movie where you know what you’re getting, and you’re getting a good version of this story.  It has everything a movie nerd could want from good action and choreography, and it makes a familiar story seem fresh again, and then it has great scenery. All of this creates a fun and bloody good time.
13 ASSASINS screens again Friday April 8th, at the Plano Angelika at 10:00 PM

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