Saturday, August 23, 2008

Movie Review: Sukiyaki Western Django

Japanese cult director Takashi Miike is known for his controversial portrayal of graphic violence in his films. He's sort of like Japan's version of Quentin Tarantino, just not as mainstream (interestingly enough, Tarantino is in this movie). The man never seems to stop making movies, having made fifteen films in 2001-2002 alone. And one of his latest films is a bizarre Asian-style western called Sukiyaki Western Django (say that three times fast). Having debuted in Japan last year, the film is set to appear in the U.S. on August 29th for a limited release. The movie takes place several hundred years after the Battle of Dannoura, in a small mountain town in Japan. Two rival clans, the Heike in red and the Genji in white, have come to the town searching for a legendary cache of gold, supposedly hidden somewhere in the town. They have enslaved the townsfolk, and devastated the town in their war against each other. In the midst of this wanders a lone, unnamed gunslinger (Hideaki Ito), apparently bearing a scarred past. The Reds and the Whites immediately begin biding for his services as a mercenary. The Gunman begins to play both sides, with the ultimate goal of destroying both parties and liberating the townsfolk.

The Pros: This is one of the most bizarre and visually interesting films you'll ever see. The colorful blend of east and west is something you'll not soon forget. Not many western gunfights happen in the snow, but you'll see one now. Miike is obviously paying homage to spaghetti westerns in both style and storytelling, but he also borrows from the historical War of the Roses, with his red vs. white theme (which is pretty much spelled out for you in several scenes, in case you missed it). The action is amazing, filled with six shooters and katannas. Swords slice bullets midair, holes are blown through bodies, and dynamite provides explosions a plenty. Between a gang leader obsessed with Shakespeare, and a schizophrenic milquetoast sheriff, there are some pretty interesting characters here.

The Cons: This is Takashi Miike's first (attempt at an) English language film, and it shows. It's pretty clear that for many of these actors, English is not the native tongue. They are not only trying to speak English, but trying to sound like cowboys, resulting is a weird mixture of eastern and western accent that is barely intelligible. Quentin Tarantino is here as an actor only, and while we all know he's a brilliant filmmaker, the man really has no business being an actor. His Clint Eastwood impersonation is painfully bad, but fortunately only takes up about 10 minutes of the film. They story is hardly original; being obviously borrowed from the spagehtti western A Fistful of Dollars (who coincidentally, borrowed it from the samurai film Yojimbo). Hideaki Ito doesn't have much presence as the main hero; frankly the villains are more interesting. Some of the violence feels kind of unnecessary, especially a rape scene that really feels out of place.

The Rest: As I said, the dialogue in this film is masked by the poor accents, so it's a good idea to watch this film with subtitles.

The End: As I said before, Takashi Miike is one of the busiest filmmakers in the industry. At the rate that he rolls out films, he's bound to make just as much crap as he does brilliance, if not more so. This is a good film, but it's hardly his best work. Happiness of the Katakuris, Ichi the Killer, Fudoh: The New Generation, Visitor Q, and Audition are all considered some of his best works, and Sukiyaki Western Django will not be ranked among them. Nevertheless this is still a visually unique yet genuinely western experience, and it's worth checking out. This is not the first time an Asian western has been produced, and it won't be the last (look for The Good, the Bad, and the Weird from South Korea next year).

Overall, I rate Sukiyaki Western Django as a 7 out of 10.

Click here to visit the official website for Sukiyaki Western Django.

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