Kino Keeno

"Film is not the art of scholars, but of illiterates…"

LFF 2015: Ryuzo and his Seven Henchmen

by Ben Diamond

Ryuzo and His Seven Henchmen (Kitano 2015, 125m)

Takeshi Kitano, perhaps best known in the UK for being the host of ’80s gameshow Takeshi’s Castle, but also known for having made some great ’90s films – Sonatine and Hana-bi – has returned with a light-hearted comedy in which old Yakuza member Ryuzo reunites with his old mob buddies to wreak havoc once more, and reminisce about the good old days, back when the Yakuza were respected by all, left alone by the police, and unencumbered by anti-corruption laws which have been put in place since the gang became inactive.  Kitano himself plays a police chief who occasionally watches on with a mask of inscrutability as his old Yakuza acquaintances make prats of themselves.  I often have a problem with directors inserting themselves into their own films (or other people’s films), especially in the case of Quentin Tarantino.  But whereas Tarantino is a nerd who should stay behind the camera, Kitano has that cult-cool about him that gives him an edge onscreen, even if he isn’t doing much.  Of course, it’s hard to tell if he delivers his lines well or not.  Perhaps a blessing in disguise when his films cross over to the West.

But fart gags are the esperanto of comedy, and translate across geocultural borders.  Hence, the film is laden with methane.  I don’t mind the heavy reliance on rectal gas, but the rest of the comedy is incredibly broad.  The camera often lingers on a sight gag or a gurning face too long, well after the penny drops with the audience.  Similarly, a lot of the political content seems completely unsubtle and appealing to our most basic sense of Japanese history, although admittedly there are some very funny moments with an old kamikaze pilot that still have bite.  I don’t quite know how the film managed to run past the two hour mark – the plot feels stretched, and at least half an hour could’ve been cut.  The genuinely funny gags are too sparse, and looking back, the plot was virtually nonexistant, a shaggy dog story for a series of set-pieces and pratfalls.  I like the idea of Kitano making a film which considers the anachronism of the Yakuza man in modern society.  It feels like he’s thinking about his own place in the world as he approaches his seventies.  It’s still a Kitano film, even if it looks like the Japanese equivalent of a Hangover or a Horrible Bosses-type outfit.  He successfully avoids giving the characters any sort of moral compass.  They are complete bastards.  That is funny and rings true.  But after a good start and a strong set-up, the film loses its way and never finds its way back, despite a few very strong scenes.  By the end it was long past its sell-by.

Ryuzo is still worth seeing for the odd moment of Kitano brilliance.  The inspired scene in a restaurant where Ryuzo and his buddy gamble on what customers who enter will order felt like a shake-up of Japan’s film history, a violent riposte to Ozu’s moments of tea-room calm, like his own school reunion scene in An Autumn Afternoon.  Kitano’s still got it – he might’ve mellowed, but we still get flashes of the old spirit.

LFF 2015: The Club

by Ben Diamond

The Club (Larraín 2015, 98m)

Pablo Larraín put himself on the map in 2008 with his film Tony Manero, set in Santiago in 1978, where, against the backdrop of Pinochet’s brutal regime, a man goes on his own psychopathic killing spree whilst simultaneously trying to get onto a reality TV show to perform a Saturday Night Fever dance routine.  In his new film, Larraín continues to delve deeply into the dark Chilean heart, once again combining a very dark humour with an exploration of the very worst in human behaviour.

Set in a remote Chilean town by the sea, the film centres on a house for excommunicated Catholic priests, some of whom have been accused of being paedophiles.  The house is run by the tender yet firm Sister Mónica, who has her own demons to grapple with too.  Although the priests are forbidden to talk to anyone outside the house, their one release is when they decamp to the local greyhound track to watch (from afar, with binoculars) Sister Mónica race their own dog, who they have been training, for cash.

Everything is shaken up when a disturbed character called Sandokan turns up outside the house and starts to recount, to everyone and no-one in particular, in the most graphic detail, all the abuse he has suffered at the hands of a priest as a young child.  Father García turns up, despatched by the upper echelons of the Catholic church to make an assessment of the mental stability of the residents of the house, and, more importantly, to discern whether they are repenting for their sins or simply having a relaxed retirement at a seaside retreat.

In Father García we are given our psychological crowbar to pry open the inner psyches of the exiled priests.  He conducts interviews with all of them individually about their past crimes, all of which are different, and their attitudes towards those crimes now, all of which are different.  In these interviews, when the camera is on Father García, it is crisp and clear, and when it turns to face the cast of the interrogated, it becomes blurrier, more out of focus, as if the degradation of memory as time wears on, and the moral fog it produces, has warped the stock of the film itself.

Less a film trying to do a boot-job on the Catholic church, Larraín is more interested in the three-way struggle for power between Sister Mónica, who appears to command the respect of the priests but at the same time is implicit in their immoral slouch towards indifference, the priests themselves, and the reforming Father García, the outsider who arrives as the Lord’s judge.  As Father García starts to exert his influence – no more alcohol in the house, no more dog racing, less meat and more vegetables, things start to get more tense.  The conclusion is unexpected and open-ended.  I would single out Roberto Farías for praise as the Christlike and troubled Sandokan.