Wednesday, 21 September 2011

13 Assassins

Yesterday my mate Greg and I headed over to Dendy Portside in Brisbane to catch 13 Assassins, a remake of the 1963 Japanese movie of the same name. I hadn't realised I was watching a remake at the time, but my buddy Greg commented at the end - "Now there's a director who understands how to film a fight scene" and both of us were left making comparisons with Kurosawa's 7 Samurai (which itself was remade in the west as The Magnificent Seven.) What we saw yesterday is one of the great samurai films and very much a fifties or sixties film, in form as well as content. 

Prolific cult director Takeshi Miike (Ichi the Killer, Audition) delivers a brilliant period action film set at the end of Japan's feudal era in which a group of unemployed samurai are enlisted to bring down a sadistic lord and prevent him from ascending to the throne and plunging the country into a wartorn future.

Based on a true story, the film has all the historical references outlined as well as the official view at the end with the 13 Assassins wiped from the records. Officially, a minister never asked 13 samurai to assassinate the Shogun’s brother, who has been causing too much trouble. Officially, the Shogun’s brother died of sickness and the Government of the time didn’t care about samurai - they were fast becoming an anachronism as we learn at the end of the movie. The code of honor that is reinforced throughout the film has become a useful tool forcing common men to die for something they don’t understand and the 13 samurai fail to realise they’re acting as assassins. The opening shot where a man kills himself in front of a palace sums up the whole story as it points out the consequences and meaning of loyalty, whether it’s to an institution or a moral code.
 It is a straightforward samurai tale which is also a straightforward remake (in some cases shot for shot) that makes no attempt to be revisionist or post-modern - so don't expect  Kill Bill in period piece. It broods with smouldering stand-offs; it trains a la Brynner and McQueen; it fights - for 40 minutes without getting boring; its historical (and as far as I can tell accurate) and it  does all of these things exceptionally well. Not to be missed if you can handle subtitles and  violent Japanese swordplay and chicanery. 

I was impressed with Miike's direction as well, although a lot is owed to the original film in some cases, but for a guy who knocks off so many films in such a short time frame, his direction here was truly superb making great use of Japanese scenery in the forests and lighting all the early scenes of subterfuge and wickedness in semi-darkness before the full blown battle scenes in harsh daylight.

Far more pessimistic and darker than Kurosawa’s Seven SamuraiThirteen Assassins isn’t flawless (the early section of exposition and setup drags a little and the shots are quite dark and often in candlelight) but it deserves to be watched, at least for its deadly final ‘mousetrap’ attack in the village they take over as well the brilliant and breathtaking 40 minute battle sequence against overwhelming odds as the finale.
Burn brightly, Pete.

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