HARA-KIRI: DEATH OF A SAMURAI 3D
DIRECTED BY TAKASHI MIIKE
Just like 13 ASSASSINS, HARA-KIRI: DEATH OF A SAMURAI is a remake with its own twist and themes on samurai history by the world-renowned director Takashi Miike. The fact that this was a 3D film got me pretty excited, believing this was a continuation of 13 ASSASSINS (that was on my top ten films list for 2011). 13 ASSASSINS was a smooth, competent, controlled action-film that led up to an awesome nearly 40 minute samurai battle sequence that showed a director at the height of his power. But HARA-KIRI is a different film that further proved that you cannot place Takashi Miike in a box and guess his next move as a director. Despite HARA-KIRI and 13 ASSASSINS each being a part of the SAMURAI genre, 13 ASSASSINS is THE WILD BUNCH last breath, last hurrah celebration of the genre, while HARA-KIRI is like a PATHS OF GLORY that serve to critique the hell out of the genre it is in. This may leave fans of the samurai genre and Miike’s more extreme period of film-making in the cold, and personally I thought the 3D was a waste of money, but this film reflects a conflicted master at his craft just as much as it leaves the viewers conflicted.
HARA-KIRI shows how the Samurai House of Ii in the local community destroyed a family but Miike deliberately presents a RASHOMON-like situation of flashback where the audience initially is led to believe the Samurai house is dealing with a cowardly, free-loader, Motome, who embarrasses himself and kills himself in a painstakingly, long presentation. The long sequence of Motome’s death by a flimsy, bamboo sword, that could pass as a sliver, shows his weakness as a man by taking so long to actually commit ritual suicide by applying the proper amount of force to his stomach in addition to not believing he actually has to do the deed rather than the House of Ii calling his bluff. But in fact, there is vengeance at work as this story is told to the samurai Tsukomo who was Motome’s father-in-law who tells the melodramatic story of young Motome, his daughter Miho, his young grandson, and the situation that put Motome in the position of trying to get the House of Ii to make a suicide bluff for a retainer.
Miike, like the Kobayashi’s 1962 original, is about shaming the daimyo side of samurai culture. The House of Ii is clearly presented as a powerful, controlling institution but its house is not in order. The leader of the House of Ii, Kageyu (played by the hero of 13 ASSASSINS, Koji Yakusho) walks with a limp, clearly to mean his power as authority of the house is in a weakened position, and ends up to pity Motome’s pathetic attempt at suicide by ending his life. Tsukomo’s telling is slow-burning retort against all that the samurai stand for and his showdown with the House of Ii is a further display at their pathetic grip of power. The figurative castration, cutting off topknots from members of the House of Ii, is something Miike wants the audience to know is earned but I am not sure too many audience members were ready for that let alone the slow-burning storytelling for a 3D movie by a director, who when he wants to be, is one of the finest action genre directors in the world.
Miike is also a trickster, the moment AUDITION goes to the realm of ‘torture porn’ is so deliberate in how unexpected it is supposed to be. But he can balance making a great genre film and critiquing the genre itself, which AUDITION does. This is not exactly a great genre film of the samurai but what it seeks to do as a critique is a very well-done film and a faithful remake. But for any audience craving blood-lust and awesome samurai action sequences, they are almost like the samurais Tsukomo makes an example of, feeling empty and unfulfilled by the experience no. And I am sure Miike wants nothing else to be that kind of feeling, even if the middle part is working sentimentality up the wazoo.
Miike can punish the audience like the best of them, the very director he remade from in Masaki Kobayashi, Lars von Trier, Michael Haneke, and the like, but like those auteurs it may seem like it only functions as punishment to that audience and nothing more (and just to note Haneke is one of my favorite directors and MELANCHOLIA is one of the best films of the decade). It has been a few weeks since I saw this and I grappled with how I felt and I still feel conflicted. The original is far superior being less sentimental, more action, and far better in pace. Kobayashi, a socialist, was also using doing critiques of the old caste, feudal system of Japan from a very political point of view. Miike’s remake, again still pretty faithful, is much like Scorsese’s CAPE FEAR in being a self-preserving, a guilty-free cleanser, self-serving remake that critiques not just the ways of the samurai but the viewers and fandom that celebrate his other films. It is still more functional than an exercise that CAPE FEAR was (Surprise, another Scorsese film I am not too fond of), HARA-KIRI is no real match for the original and I am sure if you saw a 2D print (as in cheaper print) and no inkling of Takashi Miike’s filmography, this may work as a good but not quite remarkable film on its own. Yet, this film only seems to function in existence as a self-critique by Miike, a deliberate follow-up 13 ASSASSINS. In many ways, Miike is Tsukomo flailing a bamboo sword among a crowd of samurai to make a point. How much you feel that works for you as a viewer, particularly as a fan of Miike and the samurai genre, is up to you.
DIRECTED BY WILLIAM FRIEDKIN
In some ways, I am sure KILLER JOE worked better on-stage as a Tracy Letts play. The adapted screenplay feels not all different from the stage play it is based on for all of the wrong reasons. Characters are off-screen in certain periods that could only happen in a stage play. Then again, the imbalance of characterizations among the ensemble, the huge leaps in tone (including a long sequence that will make you never eat fried chicken again), and the maniacally, thin-mustache twisting devilish ending shows a play and a film trying to shock, and trying way too hard. It is a shame, too. Performances and characters alike are wasted.
This film failing rest on the fact that the last time Letts and Friedkin collaborated was such a success with BUG. BUG, however, worked because its craziness was contained and that containment was very necessary in making it work as both a play and a film. I am sure little was done in the script adaptation of that play which probably led Letts and Friedkin to believe this could work too. The tone and themes are all over the place. It first feels like the type of family dysfunction that typifies other, better Letts plays but then moves toward a Tennessee Williams play of not-quite-human characters in a corrupt world, then moves to noir in a kinda-sorta-but-not-really DOUBLE INDEMNITY homage, then a ROSEANNE/GRACE UNDER FIRE/SHAMELESS white-trash comic relief section, and then finally, a take charge of masculinity Frank T.J. Mackey style with a scene with a fried chicken drumstick that can only be rivaled by a scene in Frank Henenlotter’s BRAIN DAMAGE, straight out of an exploitation genre finale . The script is a mess and falls apart in several different ways that actually is not nearly as devastating or ballsy at is portends to be.
Though I am flagellating the script and origins of the play, not all of the performances are good. Emile Hirsch in the lead role of Chris is not easy to buy as a dumb redneck hick. Gina Gershon, in comparison, who up until the third act has very little to do, manages to be believable as a well-meaning, low-income woman with trashy elements but not too harmful (until the carpet is pulled out from under her character). Hirsch, who shares an undeniable resemblance to Leonardo DiCaprio, also shares a similar kind of problem in having a very boyish face that marks him out of place in this world as he tries to play a certain kind of stupid and a certain kind of socio-economic class. The character of Chris does call for be well over his head but when the character of Juno Temple’s Dotty seems to have a better sense of what is going on, and there are times you can confuse her naivete with a mental handicap, there are problems.
This is not to say the performances do not work. Gershon and Thomas Hayden Church as the couple work well off of each other in the comic relief section. Juno Temple as the virginal, naive, seraphic Dotty does well in a part that is very problematic and it is unfortunate that her scenes with Hirsch do not work as it is not her fault. Her scenes with Matthew McConaughey as the eponymous Killer Joe, however, balance the disturbing and the sensuous. Yet the Dotty and Killer Joe parts of the film, that close the film as well as define it, feel like a side part for the very reasons I stated at the beginning. They are off-screen for far too long. Their relationship, after Joe deflowers Dotty and maintains a very sexual, protective relationship of each other, does not develop in an organic (or however ten-kinds of fucked up it is) way to the viewers. You wish the film was just on those two, if just because they work good together. You wish you saw more of McConaughey’s hitman and lawman duality on-screen so you could actually believe, as Friedkin pushes in interviews on the film, that he also functions as the only character with a shred of morality. If I described Joe as Robert Mitchum in NIGHT OF THE HUNTER and Dotty as a Laura Wingfield in a trailer park as the power-couple in the film, would you not want to watch a film just on them?
This film despite me mentioning the final act that takes the film into a tail-spin does not work because of the fried chicken scene. It is because Friedkin pushes Joe’s moral authority in that scene which instead is pussy-footing around the fact it is not really devastating since the only relationship he formed in that film is not in any danger despite being a sexualized act of violence against a family member. We are expected to believe Joe would not act that way to Dotty, so what is the point of that scene other than the fact that Joe’s retainer of Dotty also involves him in the lives of Chris and his family? Friedkin and Letts want you to think they ‘went there’ but my threshold has been crossed in less visually exploiting scenes in world cinema than that, however gross I did find that scene to be.
Again, there are good things, the two characters, going on that could have made this a worthy neo-noir successor to DOUBLE INDEMNITY (BODY HEAT did it better). At the most this can only serve as an example of not underestimating Matthew McConaughey as an actor that regardless of the film’s quality does give a memorable performance. In the end, however, my opinion runs with BBC Radio Film Critic Mark Kermode on this film.