Foreign Objects travels the world of international cinema each week to highlight films worth visiting. So renew your passport, get your shots, and brush up on the local age of legal consent, this week we’re heading to…
Japan! Takashi Miike is a cult director by design and by necessity. Knowing and loving his films today is equivalent to being a fan of a pre-Heavenly Creatures Peter Jackson or a pre-The Quick and the Dead Sam Raimi. He’s cool, his films are cool, and you’re cool if you not only know about him but can pronounce his name correctly… at least according to online hipster filmsters. He’s not mainstream (and never will be), but if you follow film you’ve probably heard of Miike. The film geek and critical adulation is not without warrant, as Miike has made some incredibly awesome movies. Happiness of the Katakuris, Ichi the Killer, Fudoh: The New Generation, Visitor Q, and Audition are all fantastic slices of cinema, and any director should be thrilled to have five such awe inspiring, fascinating, and varied films on their resume. These successes come with a caveat however, in that Miike is a robot and never actually stops working. He churns out almost a movie per week (forty films in eight years anyway) and for every gem he releases ten turds, which are odds that could even favor someone like Paul W. S. Anderson popping out a great movie. That’s a lot of shit to wade through.
Which brings us to Sukiyaki Western Django. Miike’s homage to spaghetti westerns falls somewhere between gem and turd, not even close to the films above, and almost as far from the filmic fecal matter of Gozu, MPD Psycho, and The Great Yokai War. The film starts shakily on an obvious (intentionally so) and stylized sound stage with a giant Mt. Fuji and equally large yellow sun painted on the backdrop, and two cowboys introducing the tale by way of a conversational standoff. One of the two gunslinger’s speaks his lines awkwardly, amateurishly, and annoyingly, and the other is not Quentin Tarantino. The Japanese half of the duo has an excuse, as English is not his native tongue and this is Miike’s first film entirely in English. But Tarantino? His speech goes from normal QT character voice (the same in every one of his acting excursions), to a deep, tonal monotone, to some sort of amalgamated European accent later in the movie. It’s obnoxious in all three iterations, which makes it fortunate that he’s on screen less than fifteen minutes total. Unfortunately, the rest of the actors struggle with the language as well, some more so than others, resulting in several lines of dialogue sounding completely indecipherable.
Plot-wise Sukiyaki Western Django is a riff on Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars and Sergio Corbucci’s Django, both of which were based on the Akira Kurasawa classic Yojimbo, which itself was based on the Dashiell Hammett novel Red Harvest… Two rival gangs are interrupted in their feuding by the arrival of a mysterious stranger to their small, mostly deserted town. The warring clans, the Heike in red and the Genji in white, are searching for a lost treasure of gold, and the gunslinger’s arrival and subsequent involvement leads to an inevitable decimation of both groups (and most everyone else in town for that matter.) As already mentioned, the story’s been done before and usually done better, and at two hours, the movie’s at least thirty minutes too long.
All is not lost however as Miike has filled the film with more than enough Miike-isms to keep your eyes, ears, and brains at least partly entertained between gunfights. He knows how to impress visually when he wants to, and he packs the film with energy and style from beginning to end. Colors are used well most specifically while adhering to the historical ‘War of the Roses’ theme between the red and the white. Visual effects are exciting with holes blown through bodies (that subsequently allows an arrow to fly through), swords deflecting and slicing bullets, and one Ann Geddes inspired moment where a hybrid rose blossoms to reveal a sticky infant inside. Throw in a sheriff channeling Steve Martin’s performance from All of Me, dialogue that includes “Why were we born in this timeless age?” and “Keep it in your pants lily liver!”, a gang leader changing his name to Henry and reciting Shakespeare to his befuddled minions, a ruffian turned transvestite, and an exotically charged dance by the very pretty Yoshino Kimura, and it’s still not enough to make the two hours flow smoothly or quickly.
This isn’t bad Miike, but if you’re a newcomer to his hyper-stylized and violent world I’d recommend starting with one of the five great films listed above. Sukiyaki Western Django mashes together several cliches, some entertain and others disappoint, but becomes one itself in the process. All style, no substance is seldom as applicable as it is here. It’s been seven years since Miike’s last cinematic triumph, and even though the intervening years have seen around thirty movies ranging from average to absolute garbage I’m not willing to give up on his obvious talents yet.
Interestingly, while Asian films have strayed into Western territory before, this is one of the few to fully embrace the genre. A second, The Good The Bad The Weird, is due out next year from Korea. We compared trailers and initial impressions here.
The Upside: An interesting fusion of East and West; sharp and colorful visuals; some funny bits
The Downside: Quentin Tarantino on screen for fifteen minutes; an unnecessary and incongruous rape scene; thirty minutes too long.