Dir: Takeshi Kitano. Japan-UK-US. 2000. 108 mins.
Prod cos: Office Kitano, Recorded Picture Company. US dist: Sony Picture Classics. Int'l sales: HanWay Films Ltd, tel: (44) 20 7290 0750. Prod: Masayuki Mori, Jeremy Thomas. Scr: Takeshi Kitano. DoP: Katsumi Yanagijima. Ed: Yoshinori Ota, Takeshi Kitano. Music: Joe Hisaishi. Main cast: Takeshi 'Beat' Kitano (Yamamoto), Omar Epps (Denny), Claude Maki (Ken), Masaya Kato (Shirase), Ren Ohsugi (Harada), Susumu Terajima (Kato).
Like Tintin and Franz Kafka, Japanese film-maker Takeshi Kitano has decided to take on America. And like those of his illustrious predecessors, Kitano's America is a mental construct: although the film was shot on location in Los Angeles, it's not a city many of us will recognise. It's a place of bland, sparsely furnished offices and hotel rooms, desolate concrete underpasses and the wasteland where suburbia meets the desert (come to think of it, it's utterly realistic). All good places to die or be killed in: which is mostly what happens in the film: repeatedly, with guns, in choreographic detail.
Kitano's best-known and best-distributed films in the West - Hana-Bi and Kikijuro - are tender and poetic, their little bittersweet illuminations encased in a slow-moving frame; though there is also an edge of menace in the impassive, unpredictable character played by Kitano himself. Brother belongs to another strand of his oeuvre - the hard-boiled yakuza (Japanese mafia) gangster movie. The story - and the camera - focuses on the Kitano character, Yamamoto, a yakuza godfather who is exiled to LA and, almost by chance, moves in on the drug and prostitution rackets with the help of an Afro-Japanese gang. As usual, Kitano's impassive, pock-marked, twitching face is the real draw; the whole film (not to mention the multifarious activities of Kitano's creative TV, literary and cinematic production unit, Office Kitano) revolves around this fixed point.
The result is a film that is not particularly pleasant to watch, and certainly not gripping in a textbook Hollywood way. Some of the English dialogue is laughable, both in the writing and the delivery (one is reminded of certain Italian films of the 1950s, where GI Joes talk like a Teach Yourself English book). And the constant, wearing brutality and blood will not be to everyone's taste; at Venice, reactions split along generational lines, with almost unanimous praise from those who remember little before Tarantino. The praise is mostly deserved: for all its problems of pace, dialogue and gore, Brother is a powerful film, whose effect lingers well beyond the final credits. But in many ways this is even less of a commercial film than Kikijuro; it will have definite cult appeal in the States (where it will be distributed by Sony Pictures Classics); but it's difficult to see Brother opening a huge new market for Kitano in the West.