Dir: Yoichi Sai.Jap.2004. 144mins.
Known in Japan as a TVcelebrity, actor and director of both commercial hits (Quill) and awardwinners (All Under The Moon), Yoichi Sai resembles friend and colleagueTakeshi 'Beat' Kitano in not only his resume but his earthy,quick-witted public persona.
He is now building asimilarly high international profile with his new film Blood And Bones,a drama that is pegged to sweep awards at home this year. It has also beenperforming strongly at the box office since its release in Japan on October 30(more than $0.5m from 14 screens in the key nine cities in its first week),propelled by Kitano's turn as a brutal but charismatic Korean immigrant bullinghis way to success in Japan's early post-war period.
In theme, treatment andquality the film recalls the best work of Shohei Imamura, though it is less anhomage than a summation of themes that Sai, an ethnic Korean himself, has beendealing with for much of his three-decade career. It is also a career high forKitano, who brings a rare intensity and conviction to his starring role - hisfirst in another director's film in nearly 17 years. His presence, as well asthe film's own power, make Blood And Bones a strong sell to theinternational market (Tartan Films has already taken US and UK rights).
Kitano plays Shunpei, aKorean labourer who comes to Osaka in 1920 and rises out of poverty by hardwork and sheer determination. In the chaotic early days after the war hebecomes a successful businessman and family patriarch.
But this seeming role modelbrutally rapes his estranged wife (Kyoka Suzuki) in the film's opening scene -and this is only the first of many outrages and crimes against family,subordinates, lovers and strangers. The usual defences - that he is a victim ofsocial forces, replying in kind to prejudice - don't wash. Shunpei is amalevolent embodiment of the will to power, who regards human feelings asweaknesses to be ruthlessly crushed, but whose every whim must be satisfied. Heis the father, boss and husband as absolute master, who knows nothing of limitsor mercy.
Based on a novel by Osakanative Yan Sogiru, Blood And Bones follows Shunpei's life for nearly sixdecades, from his early days in Osaka making fish paste rolls in a smallworkshop and wooing, if that is the correct word, his future wife, who isrunning a bar and raising a young daughter, Harumi.
She bears him a son, Masao(Hirofumi Arai), and daughter, Hanako (Chieko Tabata), but Shunpei can take nopleasure in his family. Drunk, he beats his wife and children. Then Harumi(Mihoko Suino) marries Shunpei's most loyal (and thus long-suffering) man,Nobuyoshi (Shigemori Matsu), and Shunpei's fish paste business begins to grow.Happy now' Not a chance. If anything, his prosperity makes him even more of a tyrant.
Then a gangsterish son (JoeOdagiri), born from a brief erotic encounter, shows up out of the blue - anddemands payback. He gets it - but not in the form he was expecting. Not longafter, Shunpei installs his young lover, Kiyoko (Yuko Nakamura), in a nearbyhouse, while his wife writhes with embarrassment and rage. Meanwhile, heinvests his earnings in a loan sharking business, sparing only crumbs for hisfamily.
The list of these and otheroffences grows long over the years, as Shunpei alienates everyone around himsave Kiyoko, who has become a human vegetable under his ministrations - and isthe only thing he cares for. Then he ages, weakens - and the day of retributioncomes.
As a director, Sai has oftenindulged a sense of humour that ranges from the dryly ironic to the grotesque,but in Blood And Bones he wipes offthe smile. Instead, he views his hero and his acts with an objectivity bothunsentimental and unrelenting.
An ethnicKorean who has lived in Japan all his 55 years, Sai knows his characters'milieu thoroughly - and spares the audience nothing. The result is rivetingexamination of a time, community and family that dispenses with the usualstereotypes, while keeping a laser focus on its central drama.
In Shunpei, Takeshi Kitanohas found the role he was born for - or perhaps raised for. As he has describedin his autobiographical writings, his own father was a violent drunk - thoughKitano titled one of his films Kikujiro in his memory. He perfectlyexpresses not only Shunpei's violence, but his clenched inner core. He canlove, but only what he has destroyed. He has passion, but only for his ownneeds and desires. This monster makes for the best film to come out of Japanthis year.
Prod cos: Be Wild,Artist Film,Toshiba Entertainment,EiseiGeikjo,TV Asashi,Xanadeux,Columbia Music Entertainment
Int'l sales: Celluloid Dreams
Japan dist: Shochiku Xanadeux
Prods: Hakehiko Nakajima, NozomuEnoki
Scr: Yoichi Sai, Chong Wi-Shing
Cine: Takeshi Hamada
Prod des: Toshihiro Isomi
Ed: Yoshiyuki Okluhara
Music: Tsuhuhiko Sasaki
Main cast: Beat Takeshi, Kyoka Suzuki, Joe Odagiri, ChiekoTabata, Mihoko Suino, Shigemori Matsu