Thursday, September 30, 2010

More Fantastic Fest coverage: Outrage

As I type this, another year's wonderful Fantastic Fest has wound to a close. But I'll do my best to keep the groove alive over the next few days as I type up reports on some of the other films I've seen in this geekiest of weeks.

If you're a fan of Japanese cinema at all, then you know the name of Takeshi Kitano. He is perhaps the filmmaker whom fans in the west most identify with the yakuza genre, although really knowledgeable geeks will always respect the preeminence of Kenji Fukasaku first and foremost. What a lot of gaijin fans may not be aware of is Takeshi's offbeat history. He actually began his career as a wacky TV comic, the kind who would do this sort of thing...

...which I imagine the Japanese find hilarious, but which I'm sure has just topped off your WTF tanks for the whole month.

So you can imagine the surprise Takeshi's fans felt when he began his movie career with ruthless and brutal movies like Violent Cop, about a violent cop, and Boiling Point, about a thug who reaches his boiling point and pretty much decides he likes it there. In these movies, the normally madcap Takeshi morphed into a deadpan, remorseless, imperturbable, sociopathic murder machine with liquid nitrogen for blood. And yet the end result of this wave of films was that Takeshi attained an all-new level of acclaim as a master director of crime films, whose unflinching approach to stories of the meanest and lowest dregs of society brought a heightened level of realism unknown since Fukasaku's heyday.

After perfecting his vision in this genre with Sonatine and his masterpiece Fireworks, Takeshi spent several years experimenting, offering strange exercises in art-house indulgence like Dolls, a wholly bizarre surrealist autobiographical trilogy, and what turned out to be his biggest worldwide success, his reimagining of the legendary samurai epic Zatoichi. With Outrage, Takeshi has come full circle and returned to the crime/yakuza genre that made his reputation as a director.

The good news is that, directorially, Takeshi fits right back into his yakuza groove as if it were an old favorite pair of slippers. He still has his signature knack for staging scenes of violence in a way that their severity actually retains emotional impact. He knows when to be graphic onscreen and when to let something occur offscreen for our imaginations to fill in, even if the nature of the violence depicted is not especially different. He can build tension and defuse it with humor at appropriate moments. All of this is why he's been hailed as an important director in international film.

The bad news is that the story here just about the emptiest Takeshi has ever worked with, though in its insane complexity it's the closest Takeshi has ever come to the kind of story Fukasaku is known for. We are introduced to two yakuza clans, Naruse and Ikemoto. When one of Naruse's low-ranking guys commits an unintended insult against someone slightly higher up the yakuza food chain in Ikemoto's family, the situation won't stop escalating. The tip-top yakuza boss man to whom both Naruse and Ikemoto answer, known only as "Mr. Chairman," decides this is a prime opportunity to rid himself of a partnership that threatens him, and manipulates both clans into all-out war. What ensues is a festival of gangster-vs-gangster carnage in which a number of very expensive designer label suits are absolutely ruined by exploding blood squibs.

Takeshi has always preferred unconventional narratives that avoid such norms as the three-act structure, and to say he has traded in morally conflicted characters is an understatement.

But even in an unconventional narrative I usually like to see a couple of storytelling basics adhered to, whether everything else about the story — such as not having a single likable character onscreen — defies convention. It's usually good for characters to undergo what's called an arc. This is a process in writing known as character development. The events of the story impact characters' lives in significant ways, causing them to undergo major personal changes in order to deal with said events. This doesn't mean they always have to learn to be better people, and it certainly doesn't mean they always have to triumph over adversity, though that certainly is Hollywood formula in a nutshell. But seeing a human being undergoing a personal evolution through crisis is at the heart of good storytelling, period.

The outrage in Outrage is that character development was simply left out of the equation entirely. The only change these characters experience is that of going from being alive to being formerly alive. All that the script has most of them do is shoot guys until it's their turn to be shot. Only in a subplot involving the Ikemoto clan blackmailing the ambassador of some postage-stamp sized fictitious African country does the script create anything like a substantive storyline. Mostly all we see is the yakuza population of Tokyo lightening the workload of the police by depleting its own numbers. Despite some undeniably high-five-worthy moments for gunplay mavens (and one darkly funny exercise in dental torture), this does get monotonous after a while, especially as you soon lose track of who's betraying whom.

For longtime Takeshi fans, this is worth a look. But in this "return to form," as it's being hailed, the famed auteur doesn't offer very much he hasn't already done with more originality, intensity and passion.

And I'll be back with more FF wrap-up reviews soon...

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