Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Japan Cuts: Two very different samurai stories

The only films I saw today were part of the Japan Cuts festival at the Japan Society. The films tonight were two samurai dramas that were light on action but big on emotion.

It was a hot and humid night in New York and it make be a giant sweat ball as I ran across town to make the movies. Walking into the theater I met Lee who I had met on Saturday night at Yakuza Weapon. We sat together and talked before between and after the films. She's much better company than some people at the screening...actually one late arrival who showed up about fifteen minutes into the first film and then bitched at the people on the end of the aisle. She was angry because she wanted the seats they had. Angry words were exchanged and the late comer finally had to stagger off to find seats elsewhere. Unfortunately until she did she made a bit of a racket.

The first film was Sword of Desperation. It's the story of a samurai captain who seemingly out of character kills his Lord's mistress. Instead of being killed after trial he's given house arrest for a year. What happens after that is the story. Actually what happens after that and before it is the story since the film is full of flashbacks that fill in the whys and wherefores of the story.

The film is a deliberately paced tale that is actually perfectly told and only feels slow after the frantic action on screen at the New York Asian Film Festival.

The reason the film works so well and we in the audience would have followed it anywhere is the way the film unfolds. It first presents us with a mystery of why did our hero kill the mistress, and it then proceeds to tell us additionally throwing in wrinkles as it goes. I don't think anyone could have told you exactly how it was all going to play out, even if you could have guessed parts of it.

While I do recommend it, I should point out that the only action is at the end so be ready for lots of talk and intrigue.

It's a great film, a feeling that grows the more I think of it.

The second film was The Last Ronin.

The film is film is the story of what happened after the story of the 47 Ronin. You know the classic tale of all of the loyal retainers who plot revenge on the clan that set up their master and then committed suicide once the job was done.

Picking up almost 17 years after the mass suicide the plot begins with one of the foot soldiers who survived. Having acted as a messenger during the battle thus allowing him to see everything that happened, he is tasked with remaining alive and telling the real story. He is also told that he must take a cache of money and give it to the families of all of the dead samurai so the families don't starve. As the 17th anniversary arrives he has finally found the last widow.

Going to visit a friend, he thinks he sees someone from the past on the road. It seems he's spotted one of the samurai who had run off the night before the battle apparently frightened of dying. As the film proceeds this last ronin takes center stage and we follow as he struggles to keep his beautiful young ward safe and out of the public eye.

I can't say more simply because this is another puzzle box of a film that is very much about honor and loyalty and how things are not what the seem. Trust me you'll want to see this film knowing as little as possible for maximum effect. When it ended I could hear people sniffling in the unmoving darkness. I say unmoving because when the film ended most of the audience just sat there staring at the screen. It wasn't until the lights started to come up that people applauded or even really began to shift in their seats in order to get up. You need not to know anything so the film hits you unblunted.

Again I need to warn you this film doesn't have any action...well it does, at the beginning during the retelling the story of the 47 Ronin.

For me watching the film I was kind of disinterested for about the first half hour. It was during the time that things were being set up that I really was distracted. Not like the guy two rows up who was snoring, but I was distracted. Then what I thought was kind of rambling started to be pulled tight. Suddenly I really cared about these people and what was going to happen. I was hooked and I knew I was staying to the end...which was rather late and resulted in my getting in at 1:30AM.

It's an amazing film that will keep you clued to the screen for all of it's 135 minutes.

What away for Japan Cuts to start their solo run away from the NYAFF, with two great films that really need to get a US release. I just hope they haven't set the bar impossibly high.

It was an excellent night at the cinema...and I get to do it all again tomorrow.

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