Tag Archives: Akira Kurosawa

Shadow

10 May

‘Shadow’: Things aren’t just black and white for dynasties preparing a bloody red rematch

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Before Chinese director Zhang Yimou got into wuxia-infused dynasty dramas (“House of Flying Daggers” and “Hero”) he wove provocative, intimate tales of personal struggle (“Raise the Red Lantern,” “The Story of Qui Ju” and “Not One Less”) that edged into the political (one, “To Live” was banned in China). In 2016, perhaps rattled by the ascent of Trump in American politics, he jumped the shark with the “The Great Wall” a cockamamie actioner with Matt Damon and Willem Dafoe checking in as Western avengers of sorts saving China from a horde of ravaging monsters. Yeah. The good news – and it’s relative, mind you – is that Zhang’s latest, “Shadow,” marks a return to form, even if the plot is something of writhing nest of snake to untangle.

Somewhere in an ancient “great walled” country (clearly China, but fictitious, nonetheless) two clans remain at uneasy odds after ganging up to conquer a vying third. The Yan and Pei dynasties decide to settle who rules the lands by setting forth their best warrior in a winner-take-all contest. During that cage match the great legionary for the Pei, Zi Yu (Chao Deng) is wounded severely, but all the Yan take in victory is an impregnable mountainside city.

If that already feels like a lot to chew on, it’s just the backstory. In the now, the Pei king (Ryan Zheng, serving up a wonderful rendering of feverish instability) is something of a delusional fop who favors political appeasement by marrying off his sister (Xiaotong Guan) to the young Yan prince (Lei Wu). It’s an idea she despises, and with cause. To make matters more complicated (can they be?), there’s a more central thread about the Pei king and his “shadow,” a double named Jing Zhou (also played by Chao, pulling off the double duty with aplomb). That’s right, quicker than you can say Jean-Claude Van Damme or “Double Impact,” in a dank subterranean cave, the wounded warlord – slender, hobbled and disheveled, also with a dash of madness – trains his doppelgänger for a grudge match with the victorious Yan warrior. Then there’s the matter of Zi Yu’s wife, Madam (Li Sun) and the budding of a romantic triangle. More plots within plots.

It takes nearly half the film before Zhang delivers the anticipated hyperkinetic goods as the Pei, armed with razor-barbed umbrellas, literally slide into the Yan city and duke it out with their halberd-wielding rivals. What’s most noticeable throughout the film is the palette Zhang and cinematographer Xiaoding Zhao choose: Everything’s dank and drab, black or white or some washed out shade of gray – I’m not sure there’s ever an outside scene when it’s not raining – except for gratuitous spurts of crimson blood. Part of that choice is clearly thematic, most visually obvious when the two warriors fight atop a black and white, yin-yang symbol. The obvious representations of the forces of light and darkness are not, in this case, explicitly just good and evil, but more the nuanced contemplation of madness and corruption versus loyalty and a just rule.

Zhang has cited Kurosawa as major influence, and you can see it clearly on display in “Shadow.” It’s also got Shakespearean bones, but it’s no “Ran.” (Few films are.) While it’s better than an also-ran, the serpentining plots within might give you a touch of head spins before the gorgeous, grand spectacle of battle, dueling zithers and venomous final bow.

 

Of all things Kurosawa

20 Nov

Brattle’s full week of ‘Kurosawa in History’ shows how West was won by East’s auteur

 

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One thing I dislike when reading about film: reviews or other critical pieces infused with the word “I.” It’s not about you, it’s about the art, and letting your words about the art convert that “I.”

That said, here “I” go – and I promise to get to Akira Kurosawa, but indulge me for a moment.

Growing up, I wasn’t really that big a film fan. Granted we had only three channels the aerial could catch, and living in a town of 3,000 you had to drive two towns away to find our single-screen theaters, which didn’t get “Star Wars” until six months after its opening. (One was just an auditorium in a town hall.) So for me as a kid, film was mostly John Wayne and Godzilla, and while I couldn’t get enough of the man in the rubber suit, I didn’t like the former much – he seemed phony and too righteous, when the world around me was a darker, less black and white place. You knew things didn’t get resolved by some beefy human with a twangy drawl riding in at high noon, guns blazing.  

The one other movie during this era that grabbed me was “A Fistful of Dollars” (1964). Not only was Clint Eastwood’s no-name badass cool and scruffily handsome, he answered Wayne with moral ambiguity; in those spaghetti westerns the good and the righteous often got their asses kicked, hard. Even with its quirk and dark, tongue-in-cheek humor, Sergio Leone’s cornerstone western felt genuine, authentic from the top down the first time I saw it – and it still does today, hundreds of screenings later. (Though over time there would become many Wayne films I would came to adore – “The Shootist,” “Stagecoach,” perhaps mostly “The Man who Shot Liberty Valance.”)

Flash forward to college. As part of my English major at a small liberal arts school, film was on my eclectic list of elective, dubbed “clapping for credit” and quite popular with athletes (I’ll let you all guess my two sports) because the professor, a man named Roger Farrand used to lecture us for a scant half-hour, then roll film; by the time the lights came up, there was maybe five to 10 people remaining of the 30-plus people enrolled. He loved film so much and was so excited by it that if you paid attention during his preamble you could walk out and still safely get a B – he told you everything you needed to know for a quiz or paper. Continue reading

The Magnificent Seven

28 Sep
The all-star lineup fails to shine through in Antoine Fuqua's remake of The Magnificent Seven

Courtesy Sony Pictures

The all-star lineup fails to shine through in Antoine Fuqua’s remake of The Magnificent Seven

Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, and Yul Brynner — that’s a pretty tough trio to beat in any context and just one half of the star-studded cast of the original Magnificent Seven. That Western classic directed by John Sturges was itself a rebranding of Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai (1954) and while the cross-genre translation made sense back in 1960, the current redux by Antoine Fuqua (Shooter and Training Day) doesn’t offer much of a spin besides boasting a diverse crew (an African American, Asian, Native American, and Mexican among the mix). Even then, with the exception of one “his kind” comment in reference to Byong-hun Lee’s blade-wielding character of Chinese descent, there’s not one drop of racial tension. Had the septet been hot pink fuchsia, the bad guy’s wouldn’t take notice. It certainly wouldn’t flavor their dull backlot dialog, but it might improve their ability to shoot and hit anything, because as the movie has it, their blazing guns — sans a lone Gatling gun mounted outside the cow-poke town — couldn’t strike the broadside of Kim Kardashian’s famous posterior.

Fuqua’s posse, which features Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, and Ethan Hawke, is a pretty well-armed lot, but as they team up and ride out it becomes clear that something’s off with thisSeven. Sure, the scenery’s panoramic and lovely, but after a long, bouncy canter across the prairie, saddle soreness sets in well before the first bullet’s chambered. What’s missing are personality and philosophical idealism let alone brooding, macho conflict — all requisite when telling a tale of morally ambiguous men walking in a lawless land. It’s as if Fuqua took Sturges’ blueprint, connected the dots, then forgot to bring his palette to the set. Continue reading